Towson's old Hutzler's to get a Barnes & Noble First tenant is signed for what will be known as Towson Circle

Commercial real estate

March 24, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

After being stalled for months, redevelopment of the long-vacant Hutzler's building -- a key component of Towson's economic rebirth -- is moving forward, with the signing of a Barnes & Noble book and music store.

The two-level, 30,400-square-foot bookstore is the first retail tenant of Towson Circle, the name the developer has given to the old department store at the busy corner of York and Joppa roads.

The restoration, by Towson-based Heritage Properties Inc. and Cordish Co. of Baltimore, coincides with a $4.3 million county-state project to spruce up Towson's sidewalks with brickwork, lamp posts and planters, and to ease traffic congestion along the busy corridor with a roundabout.

Several Towson shop owners are hoping that the Hutzler building's long-awaited $20 million renovation will spur a retail resurgence along a main street struggling to survive. They see the streetscape and traffic circle as mere window dressing.

"It's the 'Emperor's New Clothes.' Am I the only one on the block to say he's naked?" said Marcia Ribakow, owner of Once Again for Men, a York Road consignment shop. "You have to see growth to have it."

When Barnes & Noble -- one of the nation's largest bookselling chains -- opens in the fall in Towson with a Starbucks cafe, it will occupy nearly one-third of the 110,000 square feet of retail space in the Hutzler's building.

"It will be a commanding presence," said David Rhodes of Heritage Properties, who, with Cordish, signed the Barnes & Noble lease Friday.

But the store will have plenty of competition in Towson. Borders, a major book chain, is only a block away in Towson Commons. The Towson branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, one of the country's busiest, is nearby. And Towson Town Center has several bookstores.

Farther south on York Road, Encore Books is entrenched in the Anneslie Shopping Center. And Bibelot and Greetings & Readings -- two local, independent stores -- are just a few miles away.

"Obviously, we're becoming the book capital of the world," said Susan DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association. "We're very pleased. It's complementary."

Len Vlahos, communication director of the American Booksellers Association in New York, said Borders and Barnes & Noble are two powerhouse chains who can hold their own against one another.

The independent bookstores are usually the ones that suffer when the giants move into town, he said. In recent years, nearly 300 small stores have closed nationwide.

"It's spells doom for them," Vlahos said.

Steven Baum, president of Greetings & Readings, said his family-owned store on Taylor Avenue in Loch Raven Plaza has carved its own niche in the marketplace, offering greeting cards and gift items as well as books.

"The way we focus our store is completely different than Barnes & Noble and Borders and Bibelot; we offer a complete shopping experience," he said. "We've been compatible with Borders, and it's worked out fine."

Borders, with 37,000-square-feet of book space, is taking the imminent arrival of Barnes & Noble in stride.

"Anything that brings more customers to town is a boost. It's good for everybody," said Steve Horka, community relations coordinator at the Towson Commons store. "I'm happy to see that building come back to life."

For almost a decade, attempts to revive the white-elephant Hutzler's building have failed. But three years ago, Rhodes took on the seemingly formidable task. Cordish Co., developers of downtown's Power Plant, soon came on board. But, without an anchor, the renovation languished.

"We had a few false starts," explained Rhodes, who also is talking with the Gap's Old Navy and Saks Off 5th clothing stores as possible tenants. "Now we think we've got a plan that will be a financial success."

With Barnes & Noble locked in place, Rhodes expects other retailers and at least one restaurant and a hotel to follow suit on a 2-acre site across Joppa Road.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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