Mall buzz: downscale not down and out

February 18, 1997|By Michael Olesker

On Friday, the same morning this newspaper carried a business article that the former glitter palace of shopping centers, Owings Mills Mall, was now going downscale, two young fellows walked into the mall's Imaginarium childrens' store, one of them pulled a handgun and they robbed the place of $200.

Is that downscale enough for everyone?

One of the robbers was described as 20 years old and wearing the kind of purple backpack in which kids carry schoolbooks. The other was said to be 5-feet-3 and perhaps 13. The lads hit the place first thing in the morning, perhaps not wishing to be terribly late for school.

When I strolled the mall the next day, everything was back to normal. Entire squadrons of small children were having a swell time at Imaginarium, happily driving their parents bonkers. The food court was brimming with eaters and schmoozers. And lots of people breezed the mall's walkways and left their cars over much of its big parking area.

But, not to be overlooked, there were about a dozen vacant stores and several more empty spaces at the food court, and some of the shop merchants were saying business has been blah for months.

Friday's downscaling story, written by The Sun's Liz Bowie, isn't so much a bulletin as a roundup of facts slowly slipping into place. It's not just that Saks Fifth Avenue closed and J.C. Penney is taking its place; or that Sunglass Hut's replacing Godiva Chocolates; or that Let's Talk Cellular's moving in and Williams-Sonoma's moved out; or that mall managers have attempted to disguise the vacant stores with window displays that are nothing more than layouts of generic merchandise.

It's that, when Owings Mills Mall first opened its doors 10 years ago, everybody walked in and said, "Aaah!" It looked like class; it had the kind of marble floors you expected to see in some snazzy home in the valley, not in a shopping center. You felt as if you should put on a nice suit, to meet the mall's standards; or take off your shoes, not to scuff the marble.

And, even more than that: The place had buzz. You haven't been to Owings Mills Mall yet? People would ask this in incredulous tones, the way they'd once said: You haven't been to Paris?

For a while around here in the '80s, they were opening shopping centers left and right - Owings Mills, Hunt Valley, White Marsh, plus Harborplace - and each opening was accompanied by grand media fanfare, TV cameras and balloon launchings and folks who'd show up feeling as if something meaningful was happening in the life of the community.

Which, of course, it was. Suburban malls, after all, have long since ceased to be mere places to shop. They're our town centers now, the places we go to see the neighbors we never see when we're in our neighborhoods, because everybody's always at the mall.

We go there to kibitz, to grab lunch, to catch up on gossip. Gossip about what? About what's new at the malls. About what's new in the various fashions of our cluttered age. About what new stores have opened around town to amuse us. And if there are no new stores at this particular mall, no new fashions to rouse us, then what's to gossip about? What's to stick around for?

In America, we're so easily bored. Something bores us on television, we hit the remote control. Something bores us in a mall, we look for some other mall. For a few years now, Owings Mills has seemed like just another mall. The same thing happened to Hunt Valley, which went through bleak times and now seems to be finding some daylight.

And Towson Town Center, which found new energy when it expanded and brought in Nordstrom and drew away lots of Owings Mills' customers willing to put up with the dreaded parking garage at Towson Town.

This is important business. The malls are our refuge from the city streets, which frighten us. They're the climate-controlled, dirt-controlled theme park versions of the downtowns they almost destroyed.

If Owings Mills is going downscale, what does it mean? All the various urban pathologies are now riding the rails out to suburbia? That's the buzz now. You hear it all the time, these stories about city kids taking the Metro out to suburbia because there's nothing left to steal in the city.

In fact, Baltimore County police keep figures on crime at the malls, and it's remarkably low. At Owings Mills, for example, there were no armed robberies inside the mall in the first nine months of last year. The Imaginarium robbery was an aberration - though in fact yesterday a second store, the Downtown Locker Room, was hit.

Is there crime at the suburban malls? Sure. You get thousands of people in one place, there's always crime. Mostly, though, it's shoplifting. Beyond that, the biggest problem is car theft, but it's modest by city standards. For example, in the first nine months of last year: 30 stolen cars at Security Square, 18 at Westview, 23 at Owings Mills, 24 at Towson Town, 26 at White Marsh.

Owings Mills' downscaling is not the same thing as going down and out. Things run in cycles. There have been 7,000 residential building permits issued around the mall in the past several years. T. Rowe Price is bringing 1,300 employees to the area. All those people will need to shop someplace.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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