Safeway supermarket may rise where Belair Market long stood

If deal goes through, it could mean a strong anchor for Old Town Mall

October 09, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

A supermarket company and a Virginia-based developer are negotiating with the city to put a 55,000-square-foot supermarket in the middle of Old Town Mall, a troubled retail area east of downtown.

Negotiations with the developer, Fairfax, Va.-based Peterson Cos., and Safeway Inc., are still at an early stage and financial figures, such as the project's cost, are not available, said Kevin J. Malachi, director of small business and neighborhood development for the Baltimore Development Corp.

He said no commitment has been made by Safeway or Peterson but that both companies have indicated their interest in the project.

A supermarket would be built on the barren, 5-acre, city-owned lot that long was home to the Belair Market, one of the city's public markets, which closed several years ago.

"I am certain that we're closer than we've ever been before," Malachi said. "We have an interested developer and an interested retailer. The developer is strong, with the financial capacity to do the job."

This latest effort follows a series of false starts over the past decade for Old Town Mall, a run-down pedestrian mall a few blocks west of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Similar plans for a supermarket have been pursued, most recently by Lutherville-based Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust, but they fell through last year after Mid-Atlantic couldn't get a commitment from a large-scale grocery store, Malachi said.

The mall, which traces its roots to a farmers' market in the 1890s, underwent a multimillion-dollar facelift in the mid-1970s with financial support from the federal and city governments. It was once considered a model for urban renewal.

But crime and population flight took their toll through the 1980s and 1990s. The tearing down of high-rise public housing projects nearby in 1995 cost many area retailers a significant number of their customers, and by the late-1990s, many longtime retailers had closed their shops.

Old Town's merchants have waited for years for the mall's rejuvenation. Malachi said the BDC will also work with Old Town Mall merchants to help them identify sources of funding they can tap to improve their stores.

"Right now, [the plan] is enhancing the current retail mix and building a strong anchor to support the community's needs," he said.

Stanley S. Zerden, president of the mall's merchants association and owner of Queen's, a women's clothing store started by his grandfather in 1925, said Old Town Mall at its peak had about 90 stores. About 40 are operating today, he said.

"The biggest thing is that with the change of administration and with the commitment from the mayor's office and the BDC, it appears that we'll be at a point where we can bring this to fruition," Zerden said. "We've never had this kind of commitment from the city prior to this."

The Old Town project would be Peterson Cos.' first in the city. Peterson owns and is redeveloping Westview Mall in Catonsville and a 450,000-square-foot entertainment, retail and restaurant project in downtown Silver Spring.

Peterson is also the developer for National Harbor, a hotel and convention center planned along the Potomac River in Prince George's County.

Tom Maskey, a senior vice president at Peterson, declined to comment yesterday. The city's negotiating period with Peterson is to run through the end of January.

A spokesman at Safeway, which is based in Pleasanton, Calif., confirmed that the company is interested in the project but declined to comment further.

Safeway has four stores in Baltimore, the nearest one to Old Town Mall being in Canton.

BDC officials met with merchants at Old Town Mall last night to discuss the redevelopment plans.

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