Hopes loom large that Giant will help revitalize Pikesville

September 24, 2002

I MAKE IT all the way to aisle 14 of the new Giant food store off Old Court Road in Pikesville before my knees start to give out. This is where I bump into Irene and Julius Rosenthal, for a sense of perspective.

"All this walking," I say. "How are your size-15 feet holding up?"

"Size 13," says Julius Rosenthal, glancing down, as though making certain.

"Are you sure?" I ask.

Rosenthal was my ninth-grade history teacher at Garrison Junior High School. This goes back only 42 years. He was a witty and inspiring teacher who managed to take bone-dry dates and names and battles and put them into human terms.

One day, lecturing on World War II, he asked, "Who knows how American soldiers made their way across Europe after the D-Day invasion?"

One of the class geniuses raised a hand and said, "Taxicabs?"

Rosenthal clutched his chest. "Taxicabs?" he said. "I didn't get these size-15 gunboats from taking taxicabs."

Or maybe it was size 13. The point is, after walking up and down 14 aisles at the big new Giant in Pikesville, his gunboats should be aching because by now it feels like a peacetime trek across Europe.

The new Giant, which opened a few weeks ago to some civic fanfare, is huge by anyone's standards. The old Giant, considered quite big, was 40,000 square feet. The owners of the Landover-based chain of 188 food stores, Royal Ahold NV of the Netherlands, decided this was not large enough or new enough. So they tore down the old Giant on Old Court Road - the so-called Gucci Giant - and behind the old spot, they built this new store, 63,500 square feet, which is expected to do roughly $1 million a week in groceries.

And that's only part of the story.

In northwest Baltimore County, there is much talk about the new Giant reviving the old Pikesville. People talk about it at the dinner table. The Pikesville Chamber of Commerce obsesses over it. Surrounding businesspeople hold their breath over it. Last week, in fact, the cover of the Jewish Times asked, "What will the new Giant mean for Pikesville's growth?"

And, not to be minimized, critics decry grabbing so much space for what could have been a park for concerts or farmers' markets or any kind of community gatherings.

It is, in fact, a nice store. Really big - but nice. It is clean and bright, and its aisles are wide enough to run pass patterns. Some sections have hardwood floors that you'd love having in your own home.

The produce section alone gives a sense of the national abundance: fresh-cut fruits and pre-cut vegetables (because, heaven forbid we should have to do our own cutting); ginger roots and tomatillos, Belgian endive and Chinese beans, Kiwano melons and cactus leaves. Then there are fresh, self-serve teriyaki wings, apple crescents, honey barbecue wings, broccoli-and-cheddar bites, piccholini olives and bruschetta, and a section of pre-cooked foods that seems to go on for days.

The question is: Will all this abundance have any fallout for the surrounding area - or will people shop at the Giant and then drive away?

"It's a nice store," says Melanie Anson, a free-lance writer who has criticized commercial development in Pikesville. "But the location of the store, and the nature of a major supermarket, is not an activity generator. Pikesville needs foot traffic. I don't see where this creates any kind of foot traffic."

There was a time - and it wasn't so long ago - when Pikesville was fat and happy and prosperous. To wander through the cosmetics section of Field's Pharmacy alone seemed a journey through pampered opulence. To visit the Pikesville Library was to renew faith that literacy still blossomed.

But Americans have short attention spans and endless tolerance for long drives. We want newer and faster amusements. As the exodus to suburbia moved past Pikesville, to Owings Mills and Reisterstown and beyond, and newer roads were built to get there, a trek along Reisterstown Road meant sputtery traffic and difficult parking.

The new Giant is expected to change this. The hope is that its abundant shelves and specialized foods will not just lure food shoppers but encourage them to walk a few blocks to other businesses.

So, the size of the place matters. The bigger the store, the bigger its lure. Of course, along the Giant's lengthy 15-aisle trek, the legs start to get tired.

"All this walking," I said when I found Irene and Julius Rosenthal in aisle 14.

"It's not so bad," Julius Rosenthal said.

Of course, this is a guy who once walked across Europe because there were no taxicabs to be had.

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