Upscale retailers are wooed for Hunt Valley `Main Street'

New owner of the mall intends to transform it

February 11, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

A month after buying the struggling Hunt Valley Mall, a local developer is working to line up high-end retailers for what it hopes to turn into an upscale Main Street-style shopping and entertainment destination.

Erwin L. Greenberg Commercial Corp., based in Owings Mills, plans to start demolishing the vacant, enclosed part of the 21-year-old mall in the spring and replace it with shops and restaurants that would line an open-air "Main Street" with benches, fountains and a plaza for concerts or skating.

Greenberg Commercial, developer of the Village at Waugh Chapel retail and office complex in Crofton and owner of Hunt Valley Mall since Dec. 31, is talking with potential anchor tenants, including supermarkets, according to Brian J. Gibbons, Greenberg's president and chief executive officer. The developer also hopes to bring in a large bookstore and three sit-down restaurants, he said.

The timing is right for the $30 million makeover of a mall that has languished half-empty for years, Gibbons said. The mall in northern Baltimore County has struggled through the 1992 loss of department store anchor Macy's, increased competition from newer, bigger regional malls and various owners who proposed but never completed mall makeovers.

In Greenberg Commercial's favor, Gibbons said, is a joint venture it formed with Prudential Real Estate Investors, the real estate investment arm of Prudential Financial Inc., to finance the project.

"There's been great tenant interest," he said. "The demographics are terrific, and there will be nothing else like it in this corridor."

Current mall retailers - Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Sears Roebuck and Co., Burlington Coat Factory, Dick's Sporting Goods and DSW Shoe Warehouse - are expected to remain adjacent to the new Main Street, though DSW will likely move to another spot.

Hoyt Cinema megaplex will also remain. The movie theater could be connected to the rest of the project via escalators that would bring shoppers up one level to a plaza with restaurant seating that would overlook Main Street.

Under its preliminary design, Greenberg would demolish 400,000 square feet of indoor mall and replace that with almost 300,000 square feet of one- or two-story buildings that would house shops or restaurants and line a street divided by a brick pedestrian walkway.

The streetscape would include street lamps, benches, fountains, kiosks and areas for concerts in the summer or ice skating in the winter, with parking along the street and in the larger mall parking lot, Gibbons said.

The precise placement and configuration of the Main Street area will depend upon the size and number of anchor stores that sign on in the center.

Gibbons said the developer is hoping for one or two anchor tenants and will have between 100,000 square feet and 150,000 square feet available for those retailers. The company is talking with several supermarket chains about opening a store, he said. Along Main Street, he hopes to bring in high-end fashion retailers and possibly a day spa.

"We think the demographics demand more of an upscale project," Gibbons said. "All you have in that area of town is a mish-mash of retail. We're trying to get a place where people come and stay, a gathering space."

Signing up the right tenants could be a challenge in a tough economy, when retailers are being more selective and in some cases slowing new-store expansions, said Jennifer Millman, director of the shopping center division of Millman Search Group, a national executive placement firm in Lutherville.

But having a proven, local owner/developer should be a big plus, she said.

"If they can't do something with the property, I don't think anybody can," Millman said. "They'll need the right composition of tenant mix - apparel, home goods, entertainment and books and music. If they can get the right mix of those four key areas, it should do well."

The new Hunt Valley Towne Centre, which would take at least two years to complete, would be similar to the new retail "lifestyle centers" that have been cropping up over the past five years. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, such centers typically include apparel stores such as Gap, AnnTaylor, Eddie Bauer, Banana Republic and Talbot's; home goods stores such as Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and Bombay Co.; and book and music mega-stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. Such centers also include at least one table-service restaurant, sometimes a multiplex cinema and, often, a Main Street type ambience, ICSC said. The number of lifestyle centers has grown from about a half dozen before 1990 to at least 30 now, ICSC said.

Gibbons said he expects the completed Hunt Valley project to be similar to the popular Avenue at White Marsh, which features an open "Main Street," but even more upscale.

The growth of such centers has been fueled by a slowdown in construction of regional malls, prompting national specialty chains to seek alternative sites for new stores. Plus, consumers have increasingly looked for the convenience of a strip center combined with more upscale retailers.

"For the past 16 years, [Hunt Valley Mall] hasn't been successful," Millman said. Today, she said, with many affluent, residential neighborhoods nearby, "what they're trying to do now, a lifestyle center with retail and entertainment, would definitely work in that area."

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