Upscale mall trades Saks for J.C. Penney Downmarket: Owings Mills mall repositions itself from a haven for affluent shoppers to one that appeals more to the middle class.

February 14, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Owings Mills mall was once the airy, marbled haven for the Baltimore shopper with $300 to drop, but today it is being "repositioned," in the words of its owners, to reflect the needs of the people who work and live in the office buildings and townhouses sprouting from the grassy hills around it.

J. C. Penney replacing Saks Fifth Avenue; Sunglass Hut International replacing Godiva Chocolates; Let's Talk Cellular replacing Williams-Sonoma.

Make no mistake, Owings Mills is going downscale.

But not, mall owners hope, so downscale that most of Baltimore won't feel comfortable shopping there.

Ten years ago, Rouse Co. opened Owings Mills mall as Baltimore's answer to shopping in New York -- the only local mall that combined Saks Fifth Avenue, Laura Ashley, Ann Taylor, Williams-Sonoma and Banana Republic under one fern-filled dome.

But the grand attempt to make Owings Mills the center of high-end shopping failed. Saks left last year. And after Christmas, Owings Mills had 12 vacant storefronts.

"We are repositioning the mall for the end of the '90s and the beginning of the next century," said Michael A. Khouri, general manager and vice president of Owings Mills.

There have been about 7,000 residential building permits issued in Owings Mills in the past six years, and T. Rowe Price is building a $50 million expansion nearby that will bring 1,300 employees to the area for work this fall.

"That will be a huge growth for the area," Khouri said, "There will be 75,000 people within a 4-mile radius."

The market is changing, Khouri said. "It is more of a middle shopper we need to cater to."

He is confident that the mall, which took a big hit last year when Saks left, will be in a strong position this summer. Five companies have leased space, and he has nearly completed leasing contracts for six other stores, which he declined to identify.

"I think repositioning is important and I think Rouse knows how to do it," said Rene Daniel, president of the Daniel Group, a Baltimore shopping center consultant.

J. C. Penney, which will open in August, will be a better draw than Saks, although it redefines the center, he said.

Once Saks left, Nordstrom and Towson became the places for high-end shopping. It was appropriate for the mall to get stores that complement J. C. Penney. "They are leasing to the anchor," Daniel said.

But, he said, the question remains, "Where is the real merchandise mix that will draw the consumer?"

Penney expanding

J. C. Penney will expand the Saks space to 146,000 square feet, which will include a large home furnishings department to attract the neighborhood's new homeowners.

Coming soon are Sunglass Hut International, Aerosoles, Milan Jewelers and Reed's Jewelers. A third jewelry store already in the mall -- Zales -- is being expanded to fill another empty front, which will bring the number of jewelry stores to five.

In recruiting new stores, Khouri said, he is looking for those that will appeal to middle- to upper-middle income shoppers selling men's apparel, home furnishings, toys and children's apparel.

A sign of the health of the mall, he said, is that 12 leases were up for renewal this year and 10 merchants decided to renew. Godiva Chocolates and Williams-Sonoma, a high-end store that sells cooking equipment and some housewares, were lost.

"Our lease ended and we felt like our other stores had us covered," said John Garrett, real estate coordinator for Williams-Sonoma.

In addition to its Towson Town Center store, the company opened at the Village of Cross Keys in Baltimore recently. But one factor in Williams-Sonoma's decision to leave was that sales at Owings Mills slowed after Saks left, he said.

Malls and shopping centers traditionally see the most closures during January, when retailers who didn't make money at Christmas pull out.

Dismal years

Retail merchants are coming out of several dismal years, and it is not surprising that some national retailers have decided to pull back, said Thomas McKee, president of Hicks & Rotner Retail Inc., a commercial real estate firm. "It is tough out there right now."

But the question seems to remain as to why this part of Baltimore County, which is bordered by some of the wealthiest suburbs, could not attract enough shoppers to support a high-end mall.

"We see the Mercedes in the driveways," Khouri said.

He just knows that when they're parked at a shopping center, not enough of them are at Owings Mills.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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