Saving Old Town Mall Renovation scheduled: But it may not be enough in light of dwindling customer base.

December 11, 1996

WHILE NO ONE was watching, the city Department of Housing and Community Development got merchants in Old Town Mall and those in the adjacent Belair Market to stop shouting at each other. A year ago their arguing (mostly whenever reporters were around) over whether a supermarket should be part of the project threatened to jeopardize the planned renovation of the three-block shopping strip.

Now all but one property to be demolished and replaced has been acquired by the city, and condemnation procedures will soon bring the last one into the fold. Demolition may begin within 60 days and city officials optimistically believe significant construction will be complete by Christmas 1997. The north shed of Belair Market and the north end of the mall will be replaced with new buildings. The search is on for a grocery that will move to the complex.

Of course, no one knows whether all this activity will be enough to save the commercial strip. Old Town Mall and Belair Market lost nearly half their customers when the Lafayette Courts housing community was blown up more than a year ago. The new Lafayette Courts probably won't be finished for a couple of years, although Harkins Builders has said it hopes to move the first residents in by 1997's end.

In the meantime, all the renovation in the world won't help Old Town Mall unless it attracts customers from somewhere else. That won't be easy. The facility really isn't that far from downtown. You could walk to it from City Hall, using Gay Street. But the blight along the way -- panhandlers, street hustlers and worse -- will discourage most office workers as well as tourists. City officials have to do something about the environment leading to Old Town Mall if they want more people to patronize it.

Merchants in the mall and Belair Market have a job to do as well. The duplicative fast-food walk-ups, barber and beauty salons and discount clothing and sundries stores aren't going to attract customers who have a choice of where to shop. If merchants expect people to spend a long lunch hour at Old Town Mall, they have to provide something different in a clean, safe, inviting setting. The stores in the south end of the mall need to do that before the north-end renovation even begins, or they won't be around to see the project completed.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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