Rotunda buyer plans $70 million makeover

Hekemian would add to retail space and build 300-500 luxury apartments

`A true work-live-shop environment'

July 07, 2005|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

A developer who is buying the Rotunda shopping center is planning a $70 million redevelopment that would include 300 to 500 luxury apartments and add up to 200,000 square feet of shops and restaurants at the North Baltimore site while preserving the center's landmark brick building.

Hackensack, N.J.-based Hekemian & Co. Inc. said yesterday that it expects to settle on the purchase of the 11-acre property from San Francisco-based AMB Property Corp. by the end of the month.

"We think this is a fantastic redevelopment project, a true live-work-shop environment surrounded by some great neighborhoods," such as Hampden, Wyman Park and Keswick, said Chris Bell, a senior vice president for Hekemian.

The Rotunda, which includes a Giant Food and the refurbished Rotunda Cinematheque and other shops on the first floor and offices on the upper floors, has lost about half its retail tenants in past years as merchants complained of the landlord's failure to maintain and market the center.

Hekemian's redevelopment plan hinges on keeping Giant Food as the primary retail anchor. The developer is working with Giant on plans for a new, 74,000-square-foot supermarket with a pharmacy that would be part of 115,000 square feet of new retail. The additional retail space would likely be built behind the current Rotunda building, on what is now a parking lot, and be connected in some way to the existing building, Bell said.

Giant Food, which has operated at the Rotunda since 1971, hopes to replace its more than 30-year-old, 23,000-square-foot supermarket with a new store and stay at the site, said Jamie Miller, a spokesman.

Adding at least 115,000 square feet of retail would make the addition of another pharmacy at the shopping center possible under the terms of the Rotunda's lease with current tenant Rite Aid Corp.

Bell said the developer would build 300 to 500 luxury apartments, and possibly some townhouses, depending upon market demand, also likely at the rear of the project. An underground parking garage would serve residents and office employees, with surface lots expected to handle shoppers.

"We think [apartments] are critical to the vibrancy of this project," Bell said. He said he would hope the retail mix will include restaurants and a blend of local, regional and national retailers as well as those stores remaining in the Rotunda. Bell estimated development cost at $70 million at a minimum, including the purchase price, and said it would take about three years to complete.

Mary Pat Clarke, the Baltimore City councilwoman who represents the area, said she is looking into the project's impact on the surrounding neighborhoods in terms of traffic, parking and density. The project is subject to site plan review by the city's planning department.

"Although I am delighted to see some attention being paid to the Rotunda after long neglect, we also have to get a right fit with the surroundings," Clarke said. "I think it's a great opportunity to preserve and restore the Rotunda as we know it, which has been sorely neglected."

Members of the Keswick Improvement Association welcomed the plans for redevelopment.

"That shopping district right now is just in horrible shape," said Cindy Leahy, president of the association, which represents 102 households in the neighborhood north of the Rotunda. "It's depressed and half the stores are empty. The grocery store is in bad shape and will only [stay] if someone does come in and develop it. We want the grocery store there, and it needs to be competitive."

But one community group, the Hampden Community Council, objects to such a dense housing component and especially to rental units. "We would like Hampden to be family-oriented and not turn into Federal Hill or Fells Point or Canton," said Allen Hicks, council president. "We don't want to have renters. It doesn't add to the stability of the neighborhood."

Hicks said residents are concerned about the additional traffic and parking problems generated by new development.

"We want [the Rotunda] to be successful, but they're not talking about retail and office alone," Hicks said. "This is a whole new complex that will change Hampden."

Bell said he plans additional meetings with community groups.

"We want this to be a very collaborative discussion," Bell said. "We want to hear what they have to say and want them to understand what our thoughts are."

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