Many stores changing at Towson Town Center

Bebe, Aldo coming

FAO Schwarz going

Rainforest staying

January 12, 2002|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

A decade after an expansion and glitzy remodeling turned Towson Town Center into one of the area's top regional malls, the center is losing some longtime specialty stores and gaining new ones as the first of the decade-old leases expire.

About a dozen stores have left in recent weeks or will close by the end of the month, including the Disney Store, Pottery Barn, Hold Everything, Imaginarium, FAO Schwarz, Bailey Banks & Biddle, Circuit City Express, Lechters, Footaction, Silver Diner, Sbarros and Bentley's Luggage & Gifts.

New stores at the Towson mall will include Build-A-Bear Workshops, Bebe and Canadian shoe retailer Aldo, as well as other as-yet-unnamed retailers. Williams-Sonoma Inc. is in discussions with the mall about expanding. And the mall's owner, Columbia-based Rouse Co., is studying whether to move an enlarged food court to the second level, and turn the existing food court into specialty store space.

Stores are closing either because of national chain bankruptcies, such as with kitchen retailer Lechters, or because retailers have opted not to renew leases, either to cut costs or move away from mall locations. Circuit City Express, for one, is not renewing mall leases and focusing instead on freestanding shopping center locations.

"It's a natural progression and evolution of retail that occurs," said Christopher Schardt, mall general manager.

The mall, originally built as a strip shopping center in 1959 on Dulaney Valley Road between Joppa Road and Fairmount Avenue, was enclosed in 1973, then remodeled again in 1981 when the Hecht Co. opened its department store. In 1991, then mall-owner Hahn Co. completed a $150 million expansion that added 130 new stores, expanded Hecht's and remodeled the interior with palm trees, vine covered-trellises and three glass domes that earned the center the nickname "Taj Mahal." Nordstrom, with Nordstrom Rack, opened as the mall's second anchor in September 1992.

Most of the newer stores are on 10-year leases. That means that leases are expiring, late last year or early this year, for 130 tenants, who represent 360,000 square feet of the mall's total 998,000 square-foot-size.

The mall has 210 stores, including the two anchor department stores.

Schardt would not disclose how many tenants were not renewing leases but said the percentage was low. But the closings and vacancies at the mall have generated numerous rumors and have been a source of concern for merchants and employees.

David Piche, general manager of the Rainforest Cafe, said rumors that the theme restaurant would close are not true.

Schardt said replacements are lined up, if not completely finalized, for most of the leases that are not being renewed. Shoppers will start to see new construction in March and April, with most new stores expected to open by June or July.

"We have the opportunity to offer new uses," he said. "This will definitely be a transitional year."

Schardt said several large retailers have expressed interest in the space where FAO Schwarz is running a going-out-of-business sale, marking down merchandise by as much as 80 percent.

"If you don't buy it today, it may not be here tomorrow," warns a sign in the half-empty store, one of 17 stores Schwarz is closing as part of a deal to sell most of its assets to a rival California company. The retailer and Rouse are still negotiating the termination of that lease.

The Disney Store will close Monday. It is among the Walt Disney Co.'s 100 lowest-performing stores, which the company had targeted for closure as leases expired, said Maria Gladowski, manager of communication for the Disney Store. Closing the Towson store "is in line with our strategy," Gladowski said.

Bob Giaimo, president and chief executive officer of Silver Diner, said the Rockville-based chain chose to close the Towson diner because of significantly declining sales - in contrast with strong sales at the company's dozen other diners.

"Towson had a history of very negative comparable-store sales, and that continued to accelerate throughout the year," Giaimo said. He said the decision to leave had nothing to do with negotiations over rent.

Rather, he blames the mall's parking configuration, which left limited spaces just steps away from the diner, changes in the tenant mix near the diner, including the loss of Bally's fitness club, and a location somewhat apart from some major retailers.

"I think the world for malls is a little tougher, post Sept. 11," he added. "The competitive trends are against covered malls and for shopping centers, for convenience and accessibility."

Pottery Barn, a division of Williams-Sonoma Inc., will close its mall store, the only one in the Baltimore area, on Jan. 27. Hold Everything, another Williams-Sonoma brand, will close tomorrow, said Leigh Oshirak, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based home products chain.

Oshirak said she could not comment on the reason for the closings or whether the retailer is shutting down any other stores.

Pottery Barn is reportedly looking for a new site, somewhere in downtown Baltimore, according to industry sources. Oshirak said she could not confirm that. But, she said, when possible, Pottery Barn is opening larger format stores that also incorporate furniture and bed and bath products.

Rouse is hoping to bring in a hair salon to replace the Paragon salon, which is to move Jan. 30 to Joppa Road.

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