Hunting for shoppers at Hunt Valley Mall

November 26, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The huge parking lot at Hunt Valley Mall looks like some barren moonscape. It's where the great American suburban dream ran out of gas. The mall is so bleak, so empty even in this Thanksgiving week, that it feels as if it's been quarantined and shoppers have been warned to stay away, at risk of contagion.

Inside the big place, there's a sense of loneliness, of having made a wrong turn somewhere. You walk into stores where even the employees seem to have vanished. Maybe they've ducked out back for a smoke, or a quickie job interview at some other mall.

At the heart of the mall, there are twinkly Christmas decorations and "Jingle Bell Rock" playing jauntily on a speaker system, but almost nobody's around to enjoy it. Whoever heard of Santa Claus sitting with an empty lap? It feels as if somebody went to a lot of trouble to throw a swell party, but nobody bothered to show up.

"Yeah, it's quiet," says a security guard outside a near-empty video store.

"Who are you guarding against?" he's asked. "No self-respecting thief would waste his time out here."

"I know," he says. "I have all this free literature to hand out on protecting your house and your car, but there's nobody to give it to."

Well, almost nobody. Here and there, some parents with little children stroll through. A mother says to a toddler, as they enter a clothing store, "You have to be good in here. They might throw you out." She must be dreaming. The store employees, bored beyond imagining, are happy for any sign of life, even if it rolls on the floor and throws a temper tantrum.

For those strolling the long expanse of the mall, the eerie silence seems to ask: Does everyone else know somewhere better, somewhere livelier, somewhere hipper to shop? And, if so, why in the world am I here?

It's been headed this way for much of the past decade at Hunt Valley Mall, and thus seemed to run against the grain of modern America. Suburbia was the future, wasn't it? Air-conditioned malls were the grand frontier replacement for downtowns, weren't they? The malls were the symbols of imagined suburban plenty, climate-controlled and crime-controlled, too. Wasn't this why Howard Street had gone empty so long ago? Wasn't this why downtowns all over the country were having their obits written?

Around here, a generation of Baltimoreans watched the removal from Howard Street, by death or deportation, of the Hecht Co., the May Co., Stewart's, Hutzler's, Hochschild Kohn, all those old dowager department stores that had glimpsed the future at midcentury and envisioned it inside secure walls near all those new housing tracts built for nervous folks fleeing the city.

From down there in Baltimore's emptying streets, Hunt Valley's troubles didn't make sense. All those anticipated shoppers showed up for a few years, but then drifted away. Stores looking for a big kill examined their books, and made for their own exits. What gave? Suburbia was all about endless possibilities. But Hunt Valley didn't fit the pattern.

It was born 15 years ago in the midst of a squabble. Too rural, skeptics said correctly, with population not dense enough; no, no, said supporters, if you build it, they will come. What followed were a few boom years, but then a steady loss to tough competition. Owings Mills Mall took business when it opened 10 years ago. Then came the Towson Town Center expansion five years ago.

As shoppers drifted away, and shops followed, there were patterns: a little store with paper over the windows, and then another. When the stores ran together, there were simply long stretches of boards hammered over everything, like a neighborhood block that's been condemned.

By the time Macy's closed several years back, a corner had been turned. Either drastic measures would be taken, or the unthinkable would occur: the closing of what once seemed the inevitable future.

This week, which traditionally commences the biggest extended shopping season of the year, Hunt Valley sits there with long stretches of emptiness: 50 percent of its stores closed, and random shoppers wandering the long, hollow interior like wary explorers who sense they've taken a wrong turn and are heading vTC where no shoppers have gone before.

But the news turns cautiously upbeat. The mall, we're told, will be reborn: new stores, new restaurants, a 14-screen movie theater, 120,000 square feet of new space, with a long-anticipated formal announcement expected in about a month and a grand opening set for a year from now, with the simultaneous opening of the light rail extension to Hunt Valley.

In the shopping center business, store owners talk of impulse buyers, those who grab an item on a moment's whim. The plans here are no impulse. They've been crafted during long months over a sickly patient. The question is: Will all those vanished shoppers find the impulse to come back to Hunt Valley Mall?

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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