Old Town Mall waits for rescue after years of decline, neglect

Latest revitalization plan would tear down 11 shops to make way for grocery

July 21, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

On a typical day, there's nobody inside Bernie Delay's little tailor shop on Old Town Mall.

No patrons. No tailor.

Sprawled on a folding chair outside, waiting for business and hoping for a breeze, he comes up empty. "There's nothing doing," he says with an old man's sigh.

Old Town - a walking mall lined with weedy lots, careworn stores, Civil War-era architecture and disco-era renovations - stands frozen. Caught between Baltimore's best efforts at urban renewal, long waves of municipal neglect and the mirage of redevelopment proposals that loom just out of reach, it is a place where business owners and neighbors wait for change and wonder why.

Why does the nation's first inner-city neighborhood mall - which placed Baltimore on the map for urban planners in 1975 - stands a near-ghost town today? And why must a dream of bringing in a large grocery store to stabilize the mall cost some shopkeepers their stores?

"You'd think the city would try to save us," says Stephen Pinnick, a haberdasher whose Model Men's Shop store has anchored the 400 block of Old Town since 1963. "They got a whole lot of plans to do to the mall; why isn't the city doing nothing for the mall?"

The latest plan is also an old one. It goes like this: get a developer to find a major supermarket chain to build downtown's largest grocery store in the middle of Old Town Mall.

This time, to spur the concept to completion, the Baltimore Development Corp. wants the city's blessing to tear down 11 businesses to build the grocery store's parking lot. It wants the power of eminent domain to acquire half a dozen more in case Fairfax, Va.-based developer Peterson Cos. needs extra space for the $22 million project. And BDC proposes reopening Gay Street to car traffic.

Six times over the past dozen years, versions of the idea have floundered, most recently when Safeway backed out this spring. Before Peterson, Lutherville-based Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust gave it a go, but it couldn't win a commitment from a large-scale grocery store.

The hitch - again - is finding a supermarket to sign on.

Still, Kevin Malachi thinks the time is right for a renewed Old Town.

Malachi, director of small-business and neighborhood development for BDC, the quasi-public agency that oversees the city's business development, is responsible for projects around the city. But it is Old Town that haunts him.

"My first day on the job, I said, `What the hell is going on with this place?' " Malachi says, remembering his first visit to the mall three years ago.

In better days, a $3 million effort refurbished the dreary three-block stretch of old Gay Street into an attractive 1970s shopping district.

Shadows of that revitalization remain: Raised concrete pads dot the bricked pedestrian pathway, and glass globes top a handful of triple-pronged light poles. A 40-foot sign with a brown-and-orange clover logo is overhead.

There is a general consensus that the years have been rough on the mall's struggling shop owners, siphoning off their customer base and marooning once-vibrant businesses. But time has been just as hard on the mall's cosmetic state.

The sparsely occupied 400 block, whose variegated architecture dates back 150 years, crosses the ghost of Forrest Street and passes through the littered fields left behind when, in recent years, the BDC tore down blighted storefronts and the shuttered 19th-century Belair Market.

In the 500 block, the huge concrete planters that used to sit on the raised circles in the middle of the street are gone, and so is the sign that reminded shoppers how much time they had left to shop.

Most of the light poles are bare.

Broken panes fill the windows of one vacant building, and the sky peeks through the roof of another. The mall wends past a liquor store, a handful of clothing and beauty shops, a few fish and chicken joints, and one or two general stores before it peters out at the round-windowed senior citizens home on Monument Street.

Acquisition, demolition

Plans call for a 60,000-square-foot grocery store to fit into the west side of the mall, beside a 20,000-square-foot box that would house smaller, high-rent tenants. A wrecking ball would level the east side to make room for the parking lot, between Upward Way Bible Shop to Lady J'ae Beauty Supply.

"Developers need a certain parking field and a certain parking ratio," says BDC Executive Vice President Andy Frank. "And that path calls for some acquisition and some demolition."

Walking the length of the mall last week, Frank commiserates with merchants who have grown wary and weary of schemes to revive Old Town.

"I think the city historically shares some culpability on getting to this condition," Frank says, pausing near a fountain vagrants use as an open-air urinal. "It's the uncertainty that causes the deterioration."

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