Shops, restaurants for Mechanic

Closed playhouse's owners team with developer Brown


The shuttered Morris A. Mechanic Theatre will be converted into shops and restaurants, boosting efforts to revive retail downtown.

The parking lot company that owns the theater has joined with David S. Brown Enterprises to turn it and the surrounding property into a retail center.

One West Baltimore Street Associates, headed by Arrow Parking co-owners Benjamin and Melvin Greenwald, bought the nearly four-decade-old theater from the estate of Morris A. Mechanic for $6 million in 2005. They considered many uses for the 1,614-seat theater, including opening a movie theater or smaller venue for theater productions.

Instead, they decided to help fill what has been a retail void in downtown redevelopment efforts.

In working with Brown Enterprises, the Greenwalds have chosen a partner with extensive retail development experience. The development company has developed several strip malls throughout the region and manages Lockwood Place, a 90,000-square-foot retail and restaurant development at Baltimore's Inner Harbor anchored by Best Buy.

"We hooked up with them because we thought it would be in our best interest," said Melvin Greenwald. "They had a little bit more experience in this type of development."

Melvin Greenwald said it was too early to talk about details of the project, but that they didn't intend to demolish the theater. He did not provide a time frame for the development. Brown Enterprises did not return several telephone calls yesterday.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, which has been meeting with the developer about the project, said the property is undergoing a "soft demolition" with crews removing seats from the old theater. He said developers are looking at creative ways to use the building and were also considering adding office and residential space.

"Retail is the obvious choice to the site, given the layout, but they are open to other possibilities," Fowler said.

In addition to the Mechanic Theatre, the 230,000-square-foot complex also has a vacant food court, underground parking garage and a block of street-level shops along Baltimore Street that includes a drugstore and a fast-food restaurant.

Downtown business leaders and city officials say the center, in a highly visible location on Hopkins Place, is needed to serve the city's growing residential base.

"With all the residential development going on in the downtown area ... it's great to have even more retail available for people who work downtown and for people who live downtown," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley.

About 10,000 residents live in the core of downtown, according to the Downtown Partnership. There are also 8,000 to 10,000 employees within a few blocks of the Mechanic Theatre and 1,500 to 1,200 hotel guests a night. Several nearby condominium and hotel projects also are in the works.

"You have tremendous foot traffic in that area and there's really not much else there right now," said Mark Millman of Millman Search Group, an executive search firm and retail consultant in Owings Mills. "That's a huge market to capture."

Retailers have traditionally snubbed city development in favor of the booming suburbs. But stores from Target Corp. to Best Buy have been finding life in urban areas as the suburbs become saturated.

"That change is well under way," said Bob Aydukovic, vice president of economic development for the Downtown Partnership. "In the more dense urban areas like New York, Boston, Chicago, the retailers will change their models to fit a city site. They're starting to do that here."

The Mechanic Theatre closed two summers ago when its contract with Clear Channel Entertainment expired. Clear Channel began sending its Broadway shows to the newer and larger Hippodrome Theatre a few blocks west.

It seemed at the time a disappointing end to what was once considered a cutting edge theater and the key to the Charles Center renewal zone. The theater's subscriptions once soared as high as 22,000 but dropped to 3,731 by the 2002-2003 season.

"It's a very noticeable building and it's really at the core of downtown," Aydukovic said. "Just to have it sitting largely empty doesn't do much for the neighborhood."

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