Holiday shopping hindered at mall Parking difficult, dirt piled high as renovation continues

November 27, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

At most malls, it's beginning to look at lot like Christmas, with wreaths, snowmen and fake snowflakes. At The Mall in #i Columbia, it's beginning to look a lot like an excavation site.

In a scene that would enthrall most 3-year-olds -- and infuriate their holiday-shopping, parking-crazed parents -- the minivans, sport utility vehicles and BMWs around the lots are dwarfed by dozens of 30-ton dump trucks taking 8,000 cubic yards of dirt from the site every day.

It's part of a $150 million renovation of the 26-year-old core of Columbia's downtown that will add Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor stores but could make this holiday shopping season a nightmare.

"It's hard enough to find a spot to park in here on a Saturday, much less with all this construction," said Cynthia Waters, who sells jewelry at a kiosk in the mall.

At another kiosk, a seller of winter clothing who declined to give his name because he didn't want to lose business, called it "ridiculous. Three-fourths of the parking is gone. With the trucks and the detours, it takes an hour to drive around. People just aren't excited about coming to the mall."

For Celina M. and Joseph A. Poch of Ellicott City, just mapping an entrance route around the 50 or so dump trucks carrying dirt from a site outside Hecht's hampers their daily lunchtime outing to the mall.

'It's a handicap'

"We leave the house knowing it's going to be a challenge coming here," Celina Poch said. "It's a handicap."

Her husband said, "It takes us at least 15 minutes just to find a [parking] space, much less a close one."

At Bun Penny Food & Wine, which depends on people stopping for lunch, construction has hampered customers.

In the past few days, as workers finished paving a temporary lot, business has picked up, but Judy Abrams, a Bun Penny employee, said, "It's been a long time since we've had a line wrapped around the corner for the espresso."

To accommodate holiday shoppers, the Rouse Co., which owns the mall, will make 4,700 parking spaces available in temporary lots outside Hecht's, company officials said. During the holiday season, shuttle buses will carry shoppers from the parking garages along Ring Road to mall entrances.

Construction workers might impede shoppers, but the reverse is also true.

'It's hard to work'

"It's hard to work with people trying to squeeze by," said Bob Ritchey, a construction foreman, as he directed trucks dumping dirt onto an area the size of a football field that will soon be a parking lot. "We try to accommodate people as much as we can."

Perhaps the most impressive structure at the mall these days is the mound of dirt outside Hecht's, along with the passing trucks and loaders digging trenches for pipes.

Construction crews said they haul 7,500 to 8,000 cubic yards of dirt from the mall daily. That comes to more than 400,000 cubic yards in the past several weeks. Above ground, it takes up more room.

"The one thing people don't realize about dirt is that once you dig it up, it fluffs up," said Harold Young, a construction worker from Waldorf, as he stood in a muddy, knee-deep trench. "It looks like it's everywhere."

Almost every week, it seems, a new twist or turn appears in the service road around the mall. That often draws the sneers and jeers of passers-by.

In his orange vest and hard hat, construction worker Gary Grimm Catonsville has found himself playing a new role: mall tour guide.

'It can be a mess'

"People drive by and they get all turned around. They don't have any idea where they're going," Grimm said on a recent morning as he waved a flag, directing traffic from a closed side road. "They'll come through asking, 'Where's J. C. Penney's? Where's Hecht's?' It can be a mess."

Another foreman for Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., the general contractor, who asked not to be identified, said, "They want it to be nice and pretty, but you just can't do that when you're constructing something this big."

When the dirt has settled, the mall will have 1.2 million square feet of retail space. That includes the two new anchor stores -- Lord & Taylor, which is expected to open next November, and Nordstrom, which is to open in September 1999 -- and space for 10 to 20 more stores.

Two parking decks outside the new stores will add more than 6,000 spaces.

For now, however, many fear it will be a rough -- or at least dirty -- road to mall stores, with shoppers tracking in dirt and leaving muddy footprints.

Business down

Some vendors, who say their sales have dropped 25 percent to 30 percent because of the construction, fear that will mean a tough holiday season.

"On dry days, the dirt flies in your face trying to get inside, and when it's raining, they tramp mud through," said Robbin Greer, manager of a jewelry kiosk in the mall. "People don't want to have to stomp through the mud to get here, and it's showing in our sales."

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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