`Death Valley' becoming `Main Street'

Once troubled Hunt Valley shopping center tries open-air concept in effort to become a regional draw

September 25, 2005|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

Something strange has been going on at the former Hunt Valley Mall lately.

Shoppers are coming to lounge on benches in the afternoon sun or eat lunch at outdoor cafes. Couples are choosing Hunt Valley over White Marsh or Towson to catch a movie. People are shopping there, they say, because they like the selection of stores, not just because it's close and convenient. The mall, for the first time in years, is almost fully leased.

After years of failed attempts at revival, the once depressed mall - now renamed Hunt Valley Towne Centre - has gotten a makeover and is seeing new life as an open-air "Main Street"-style complex. A 140,000-square-foot Wegmans Food Market Inc., scheduled to open as the main anchor next Sunday, is expected to attract people from as far away as Delaware and Pennsylvania, turning the sporadically visited mall into a regional draw.

Since opening in 1981, the Hunt Valley Mall always seemed to be on the brink of failure, despite easy access to Interstate 83 and an affluent if sparse residential population surrounding it in northern Baltimore County.

Two other developers tried to transform the mall, the last cluster of commerce before the Pennsylvania line, but never followed through on plans. Now, many are predicting that the latest and third try, by Greenberg Commercial Corp. of Owings Mills, could be a winner. "I was here when the mall was dead," Rebecca Cuellar said as she spent one recent afternoon with her 2-week-old daughter strolling between stores. "This is much better."

The former dark and dank enclosed portion of the mall has been bulldozed. In its place are concrete walkways, benches, a fountain and a gas fireplace for winter and fall evenings. A dry cleaner and tobacco store have been replaced by upscale tenants such as AnnTaylor Loft, White House/Black Market and Olly Shoes.

Taking the place of a 1980s-style "food court" is an area of more modern "fast casual" restaurants such as Panera Bread and Noodles & Company, as well as an upstairs area with more traditional sit-down restaurants, including Greystone Grill and Jesse Wong's Open Kitchen.

The $75 million project includes 269,000 square feet of new retail, service and entertainment tenants joining 475,000 square feet of existing high-traffic tenants, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Dick's Sporting Goods, Burlington Coat Factory and the shoe warehouse DSW Inc.

"I think it's a wonderful example of renaissance in Baltimore County," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said. "It's turning something that has been struggling ever since it was originally constructed to something that's going to be a superstar."

The political climate wasn't so supportive when the mall opened 24 years ago with a Bamberger's, which became Macy's, and Sears as anchor stores. Baltimore County officials resisted new development, fearing it would mar the rural ambience of the northern county and hurt businesses along the York Road corridor toward Towson. The mall was built in an area where county leaders wanted to limit development.

County officials also warned Hunt Valley's developers, Kravco Inc., that they feared a shopping-mall glut. Malls that were opened or being planned at the time were White Marsh, Owings Mills and Towson Town Centre.

In 1979, the county planning board voted to reject plans for the Hunt Valley Mall, only to reverse its decision when a judge ruled that the zoning was on Kravco's side.

By then, a contentious tone for the development had been set.

Top county officials snubbed the grand opening on Sept. 17, 1981. At the time, County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson said it would be hypocritical to attend a ribbon-cutting for a project he opposed.

Less than half of the mall's shops were ready to open that first day. Ceremonies were stalled for a half-hour because of building code violations.

Kravco said conditions at the mall would improve and promised to bring in three new anchors. The additional anchors never came. By 1992, Macy's closed as its bankrupt parent company looked for ways to cut costs.

By then, business was so slow, a gallows humor had set in: Some merchants jokingly called Hunt Valley "Death Valley." Some said it resembled a jail because of all the empty stores with security gates pulled down.

Several attempts to remake the mall weren't completed. In 1996, Equitable Life Assurance Society tried to transform the mall into a discount center after bringing in Wal-Mart, Burlington Coat and a movie theater but it sold the center before completing plans.

Starwood Ceruzzi LLC bought the mall in 2000 with plans to convert it to a "big box" center with specialty shops and restaurants. It emptied the mall's interior and closed the inside, but never got beyond that.

Greenberg saw potential, though, when it bought the property more than two years ago. Then as now, it is located in one of the region's wealthiest areas.

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