Retail renaissance Malls: A robust economy and consumers with deep pockets and new tastes are forcing aging retail centers into vast changes.

October 25, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Hailed in the late 1950s as a modern shopping wonder, the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi has been bulldozed into rubble. A new Harundale Mall, soon to rise from the dust in Glen Burnie, will boast several large anchors and little resemblance to its predecessor.

Farther south on Ritchie Highway, Severna Park Mall, a relic of the mid-1970s, sits intact but mostly a shell, unable to compete with the pizazz of regional malls. For its salvation and a "de-malling," owners look to an expanded, gourmet-style supermarket and perhaps a mega-bookstore.

From neighborhood shopping strips to the biggest malls, the Baltimore region is seeing hundreds of millions of dollars poured into a retail renaissance, fueled as much by a booming economy with willing consumers as by aging centers forced to change with the times.

More centers are forging fresh identities, attracting new tenants and getting infusions of capital than possibly at any time since the 1960s, when retailers began following the flow of residents from downtown to the suburbs.

From Bel Air to White Marsh, from Reisterstown to Columbia, from Glen Burnie to Annapolis, more than 40 centers are in various stages of redevelopment or expansion. The makeovers -- everything from new facades to multimillion dollar additions -- represent an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars on the part of landlords and retailers and mean thousands of new jobs.

In the first six months of the year, area permits for new retail projects and renovations totaled $111.5 million, according to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's summary of permits valued at $200,000 or more. The permits have gone mostly to projects at existing shopping centers, including major redevelopment at Hunt Valley Mall, where a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and megaplex theater are under construction, as well as for new department stores in Columbia and Owings Mills. But those permits represent just a fraction of centers now being redeveloped.

Dozens of new hires come with each store opening -- close to 100 full- and part-time jobs for some of the big discounters; more than 100 for supermarkets, and several hundred for department stores, said Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group, a national retail consultant firm based in Lutherville.

Though the suburban retailing landscape constantly changes as the more competitive players edge out weaker ones, the late '90s have shaped up as an especially active period, retail experts say.

"We're really just seeing the fruits of a six- or seven-year expansion cycle," said Tom Maddux, a principal with Towson-based commercial real estate brokerage KLNB Inc.

Much activity stems from expansions that national retailers launched early in the decade, starting in rural areas with lower development costs before moving into the more densely populated East Coast. Expansions have come from department store chains such as May Department Stores Co., "category-killer" discounters such as Wal-Mart, Dayton-Hudson Corp.'s Target and Home Depot Inc., drugstore chains Rite Aid Corp. and CVS Corp. and grocery retailers such as Food Lion and Metro Food Markets.

"You've got quite a lot happening in retailing in general, and you've got some large retail chains that have been expanded," said Bruce Van Kleeck, vice president of member services for the National Retail Federation. "When they're in the expansion mode, that gets developers' attention quickly."

Retail space has been growing nationally, he said, at an annual rate of 20 square feet per capita.

Even after many retailers broke into the market early in this decade, companies have continued filling in the gaps as sites have become available, fighting to stave off the competition. With the region's oldest centers well into their third decade, many are ripe for redevelopment. By today's standards, store spaces are often too small, ceilings too low, parking spaces too few, public spaces too poorly lighted, facades too outmoded and unattractive.

New retailing concepts

"They're now getting to the point where the economics are leading toward renovation or demolition," said J. Lawrence Mekulski, also a principal with KLNB, who recalls the mid- to late-'80s as only the second-busiest redevelopment period.

Today's developers find themselves forced to drastically re-align centers to accommodate new retailing concepts.

"The anchor stores, [the] major attractions, have all tended to get larger over the last five to 10 years," said Frank Watkins, president of Annapolis-based Bignell, Watkins, Hasser architects, which does about half its work on retail centers. "People who own the centers have to improve them to keep competitive."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.