Face-lift for high-end mall

Cross Keys: One of the most inconspicuous local shopping centers has spent $3 million to regain its old luster.

October 13, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

The Village of Cross Keys has received a face-lift.

The once leaky courtyard of the North Baltimore shopping complex has received a $3-million renovation. The abandoned Bibelot bookstore is about to become home to the posh Elizabeth Arden Red Door day spa and the chic ladies boutique April Cornell. Truffles & Tea, a gourmet tea and chocolate store, has also moved in. Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage will soon become neighbors with Talbots.

"We feel it's time for people to rediscover Cross Keys," general manager Michelle Schiffer said. "We want to bring everybody back when there's no more jackhammers, no more construction and new places for them to shop."

The shopping center, created by the Rouse Co., is one of the most inconspicuous in Baltimore. Located between the Jones Falls Expressway and Falls Road, it opened in 1965 as a self-contained space for upscale living, working and shopping surrounded by a hotel and residential community. It's barely visible from any main thoroughfare and visitors have to enter a gated complex to reach it.

The original businesses were independent and exclusive. Over the years, national chains have taken over several of the spaces.

In 1995, the women's clothing chain Talbots announced it was relocating its store from Lake Falls Village. Talbots joined a Williams-Sonoma Grande Cuisine that moved in a few months earlier. Two years ago, Chico's, the upscale apparel store for women, and J. Jill Group Inc., a casual apparel women's accessories and footwear stores, became Cross Keys tenants.

The configuration of the mall has also changed. At one time, all the stores used to face inward toward the courtyard. Now some of the stores have storefronts facing the parking lot.

Reflecting general retail trends, Schiffer said it became harder to attract local independent entrepreneurs to Cross Keys and it had to look to larger retailers to fill vacancies, including the space left in 2001 when the sprawling Bibelot bookstore closed after its owners declared bankruptcy.

"Over the last few years we've really changed the tenant mix to add more national tenants to the existing local tenants, which we think can drive more traffic," she said.

Some observers think Cross Keys has lost its uniqueness.

`Lost its luster'

"It has lost its luster and the shine that it had years ago as a destination place to shop," said Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group in Owings Mills, a nationwide retail consulting and executive search firm.

"It used to have one-of-a-kind boutique stores. Now what they're bringing in is chains."

Schiffer believes that Cross Keys retains its local charm and a good mix of local tenants. Cross Keys will celebrate the recent changes during an Oct. 23 event with food and entertainers.

Recent renovations have made the courtyard more inviting by adding brick-covered walks, new courtyard furniture and polished stone details at the entrance of the stores.

The Radisson Hotel, a popular meeting spot among businessmen and politicians, is also undergoing a $1 million renovation.

Some of the change began in 1994 when the upscale Nan Duskin apparel chain closed after it failed to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Village Food Center, a popular grocery store, deli and cafe, closed after the owners decided to retire. Some merchants lamented the closing of the deli, which they said helped drive daily traffic. Customers included Oprah Winfrey and broadcaster Howard Cosell.

`The place to go'

"Ages ago, it was the place to go," Ruth Shaw, owner of the Ruth Shaw boutique, said of the deli. "It brought people in who would then shop at the stores."

Absent the deli, many of the small boutiques have come to depend on long-time shoppers and word-of-mouth referrals.

Said Judy Rudo, owner of Joanna Gray Shoes of London. "I think I've become a destination now."

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