Cloudy future for anchorless Dobbin Center

With Kmart leaving, tenants and analysts wonder what's next

`Due for a rebirth'

Other large space has been open since Uptons left in 1999

March 18, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Columbia's Dobbin Center has survived for nearly three years without an anchor store at one end of the strip mall.

But with Kmart announcing that it will vacate its property at the 17-year-old mall's other end, some are wondering whether the news will spell doom for Dobbin Center, which is living in the shadow - literally and figuratively - of the modern and very popular Columbia Crossing, towering uphill across Route 175.

"What it means for a center is now they have a bigger challenge. Because of Kmart closing, they have two anchors that need to be filled," said Patrice Selleck, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a global trade association. "For those owners, they have to say, `What are we going to get in here to make this center vital again?'"

Some retailers in the center, who benefit from traffic generated by anchors, are worried that the new vacancy will hurt business.

"It's not going to do the center any good to have the other major anchor gone," said Larry Boggess, manager at the Sprint store in Dobbin Center.

"I think it's going to decrease the footsteps in the shopping center," he said. "Unless you need something from BGE Home Store or the [Annapolis] Lighting Company, or you need a Sprint phone, there's really not much of a reason to come here."

But local commercial real estate observers say the available 108,000 square feet is just the boost the strip mall needs.

"That center is due for a rebirth. There's a ton of opportunity there," said Bob Morris, a commercial real estate broker with NAI/KLNB Inc.

"It's a great shopping center. It's a no-brainer," he said. "The location is good. People want to talk about poor access, but this is Columbia. You can argue Columbia Crossing has poor access. I'm on the edge of my seat to see what happens there."

Alan Luger of Divers Real Estate, which is leasing the other vacant anchor space once occupied by Uptons department store, said Kmart's departure will initially hurt the shopping center but might help in the long run.

"It'll enable the center to attract perhaps a major one or two big-box tenants that could not have been in the center previously, that would be more in keeping with the Columbia market," he said. "Long-term, the possibility of replacing Kmart with tenants who may draw more traffic to the property than Kmart works for the tenants."

A number of challengers

Dobbin Center, once the premier shopping center in Columbia, has, like Kmart, faced a considerable number of challenges in recent years. Snowden Square, a few miles away on Snowden River Parkway, was the Rouse Co.'s first "power center" in Columbia - it lured away Hechinger, Dobbin Center's original anchor, in 1992. The space was subsequently leased to Uptons.

Three years later, Rouse was planning Columbia Crossing on the north side of Route 175, across from Dobbin Center, offering more of the much-sought-after big-box shopping experience and a mix of upper-end retailers.

Last year, a developer built a smaller strip center across Dobbin Road that lured a Starbucks, a Fuddruckers restaurant and about four other shops.

Dobbin Center's main problems are access, visibility and size, analysts said.

"Columbia Crossing is just the opposite - it has multiple ways in and out, and a lineup that's state of the art," said David Fick, a managing director at Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. "If you're a tenant and have the opportunity to be in Columbia Crossing, or even one of the other locations on Dobbin, you're going to want to be there.

"Columbia Crossing is easy for those making that quick stop. There's nothing easy about Dobbin Center."

But Dobbin has retained some of its drawing power. Last year, Baja Fresh Mexican Grill moved in, and it has consistently drawn a heavy lunch crowd. Tweeter, a high-end electronics store, also moved to the center last year, and business has gone well, a spokeswoman said.

Anne-Marie Boucher, public relations director with Massachusetts-based Tweeter, said it chose the Dobbin Center to get into the Columbia market.

"Columbia is a strategically located place for us," she said. "When the lease came up [in Dobbin Center], it was the right place for us."

Losing the first anchor

In the midst of wealthy and robust demographics, Dobbin Center still could thrive despite the competition. But Manekin LLC, which had the leasing rights on the former Uptons building, wasn't able to lease the space. It gave up the rights to the building in the fall.

Uptons moved into the 65,200-square-foot building in 1993 and closed six years later.

In 2000, Manekin was negotiating with a grocery retailer, which would have been the only supermarket outside Columbia's village centers, but the deal never went through. Since then, there has been interest but never a contract, said Dicky Darrell, the Manekin broker who worked on the account.

Luger said the owners of the building are discussing subdividing the property to bring in more than one tenant.

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