$4.8 million earmarked for resuscitation of sagging Old Town Mall

Proposal includes bank, supermarket, restaurant

April 14, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley unveiled a $4.8 million plan yesterday to resuscitate the dilapidated Old Town Mall in East Baltimore as a supermarket, bank and restaurant.

The 5-acre project will be developed by Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust of Bel Air, a company with extensive suburban development projects that made the winning bid to revive the three-block shopping strip at Gay and Ensor streets.

Residents near Old Town Mall have been waiting for years to see the mall rejuvenated.

"It's an absolutely excellent sign," Marie Washington, president of East Baltimore Community Corp. (EBCC), said of the proposal. "It's the most fantastic addition that we have had in a long time."

With the recent construction of the Pleasant View Gardens neighborhood -- which replaced the Lafayette Courts high-rise housing project -- city housing officials think the neighborhood has become stable enough to support the mall renovation.

O'Malley said the redevelopment -- and the project's being headed by a traditionally suburban developer -- is a sign that the city is attracting new interest.

"This project is not only going to bring back [the mall]," O'Malley said. "It's going to provide an additional economic boost to the surrounding area."

The city estimates that 140 jobs will be created through the renovation of the mall, which has been through tough times.

The pedestrian mall began as a farmers' market in the early 1890s, when the city line ended at North Avenue and much of the land beyond was agricultural.

Rebuilt from the ashes of the 1968 riot, shops were looted during the blizzard of 1979. The City Council made its redevelopment a priority in 1993 after a decade of sluggish sales and shuttered storefronts. The exodus of shops continued in 1996 when two of the city's oldest clothiers, Goldstein's Style Shop and the Diplomat Shop, left, blaming poor sales on inadequate police protection.

In December, fire destroyed two of the oldest stores, Solo Variety III and Fashion Wig & Hat Shop, leaving the ruins as a symbol of failed urban revitalization.

Danny Zerden, whose family has operated Queen's Dress Shop at 599 Old Town Mall since the 1920s, said yesterday that the redevelopment plans have boosted hopes of area merchants.

The project is expected to be completed by December next year.

"Everything sounds great, and this can be like a pilot project for the rest of the city," Zerden said, referring to other struggling neighborhood markets.

The Mid-Atlantic project has been endorsed by the Old Town Merchants Association and the EBCC, which will gain up to $25,000 a year in proceeds from the development for job training. The city contribution to the project is $771,000 in land-acquisition and demolition costs.

Mid-Atlantic is seeking additional partners for the project, including a significant minority partner, O'Malley said. Mid-Atlantic officials said they expect the partnership to be completed within 90 days.

City Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne said the renovated shopping center will add to other projects in East Baltimore, including the renovation of Broadway Homes and the new $41 million Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center bounded by North Gay, Hillen, Front and Exeter streets just south of the mall.

"Old Town Mall is certainly a significant feature in East Baltimore," Payne said. "We have every reason to believe Old Town Mall will experience a vibrant commercial revitalization."

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