Rotunda makeover to begin by spring

Planners approve hotel-apartment tower, larger Giant supermarket, restaurants

December 21, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

Construction is to begin this spring on a major redevelopment of the landmark Rotunda shopping center in North Baltimore - including a new 22-story hotel and apartment tower - after the project won final approval from the city Planning Commission yesterday.

The $130 million development also will bring condominiums, townhouses, a bookstore, restaurants and a new Giant supermarket to a retail and office center that has faded in recent years with the growth of suburban shopping malls and town centers.

"We were very concerned because we could see that things were going the wrong way at the Rotunda," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes the center on 40th Street north of the Hampden business district. "We saw the place going to wrack and ruin."

The development is significant, officials said, because it shows the rejuvenation of Baltimore neighborhoods beyond glittering waterfront communities such as Harbor East. The Planning Commission gave unanimous approval to the project, which includes the 22-story tower, a 10-story building as well as a renovation of the current Rotunda building. The iconic 65-foot bell tower will remain.

"This seems to be a brilliant project," said commission member Benjamin Glenn. "It's going to draw a lot of people to this area."

Residents of Hampden, Wyman Park and Roland Park said yesterday that they largely support the project, as long as the increased traffic is properly handled. They also expressed concern about the shadow the tower would cast over Wyman Park, noting that the 12-acre Rotunda property is on a hill and several hundred feet above sea level.

"It's a massive structure," said Kathleen Talty, president of the Wyman Park Community Association. She presented the commission with a shadow study showing how the tower would block sunlight in the afternoon.

"We're not thrilled with 22 stories," said George Peters of the Hampden Community Council. "We're a neighborhood of two- and three-story townhomes. We're not Harbor East."

But most community groups - including those in Wyman Park and Medfield - endorsed the project as necessary to revitalize a community center that has lost much of its luster as a destination for shopping and dining.

Developer Hekemian & Co. of New Jersey met extensively with community groups and has agreed to pay for the rebuilding of two intersections - West 40th Street at Elm Avenue and at Roland Avenue - and for one-third of the cost of improving the Falls Road and West 41st Street intersection.

"It's very gratifying to see that all the groups, if nothing else, are united in wanting the Rotunda to become again a community center," said Al Barry of AB Associates, which is advising Hekemian.

The Rotunda was built in the 1920s as the headquarters for Maryland Casualty Co. In the early 1970s, developer Bernard Manekin converted it into a shopping and office center - one of the first examples in the country of an old building being recycled for mixed use.

Over time, many of the retail tenants left and the building fell under absentee management. The 23,000-square-foot Giant supermarket is woefully small compared with newer markets. But the Rotunda's location - close to affluent North Baltimore neighborhoods - has always been desirable to developers.

Hekemian bought the Rotunda and the large parking lot behind it in 2005. The two new buildings will go on the parking lot on the southern half of the property. A new 70,000-square-foot Giant supermarket will be underground, beneath the two buildings, with its own parking lot.

At ground level, a plaza will connect the new buildings with the current Rotunda building. Plans call for 143,000 square feet of new retail space, an expanded Rotunda Cinematheque, several restaurants, as well as 302 market-rate apartments, 44 condominiums and a 120-room hotel.

An above-grade parking garage will be built into the 22-story tower, on the eastern side of the property, making for 1,600 parking spaces total. Also, a row of 12 new townhomes will make up the property's southern edge, facing West 38th Street.

"This is big. This is big," said Clarke, noting the size of the development in a largely residential area far from the harbor. "There's not even water!"

Hekemian said it will file for building permits in January and plans to begin construction as soon as it's warm enough, likely in April. The project is expected to be completed in about three years. The buildings will be brick, in four tints (two red, two beige) to complement the existing red brick Rotunda.

The developer plans to collaborate with local artists to create work for the public spaces of the project. A panel of curators - including Nancy Haragan of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Bill Gilmore of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and Medfield artist Zoe Charleton - will select five artists to be considered.

The winning artists will receive $2,500 to implement their proposal.

"We want to personalize it in a way that hopefully will relate to the community itself," Barry said.

Rotunda plan

Underground Giant grocery store


302 apartments

44 condominiums

12 townhouses

239,000 square feet of retail space

140,800 square feet of office space

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