Rotunda revival

January 12, 2008

It will be bigger and taller, home to residents and retailers, with ample parking and a subterranean supermarket. A redeveloped Rotunda will extend the happenings in Hampden up through staid Wyman Park and revive a North Baltimore landmark - finally. And the mixed-use revitalization project won't cost the public a penny in subsidies; that's a win for Baltimore on many fronts.

With last month's approval by the city Planning Department, developers expect to break ground on the new Rotunda shopping center this spring. The place has languished for too long now, despite its prime location at Roland Avenue and 40th Street and its history (the renovation of the former Maryland Casualty Co. into an office-mall complex in 1971 is an early example of adaptive reuse of old commercial properties).

It used to anchor that corner of North Baltimore, but in the past decade poor management and other factors led to its steady decline. The 2002 revival of the Rotunda Cinematheque by the owner of the Senator Theatre drew new patrons, but the complex needs the kind of overhaul Hekemian & Co. of New Jersey plans.

The developers should stick with boutiques, specialty or service stores and funky restaurants as tenants. A giant-sized Giant, a tenant since 1971, is enough big-name, big store for this renovation.

And to the residents who worry about the impact of the 22- and 10-story residential towers planned for the site? They need only look across the street or around the corner to find three apartment buildings that are eight stories or taller. The redevelopment in Hampden has rejuvenated that once-shabby neighborhood, and the spiffy turnout shouldn't end at 36th Street. The community's focus now should be on the potential of a revitalized Rotunda: renewed vitality in a neighborhood that could use some sparkle.

A new Rotunda complex (with its 65-foot belltower intact) should spur the same interest - and attention from local hons - in the affordable rowhouses between The Avenue and 40th Street.

Parking and traffic, two reasonable and expected community concerns, have been addressed by the New Jersey developer, who has planned two parking areas at the Rotunda and agreed to rebuild three key intersections, two of them completely at its expense.

What's so appealing about the Rotunda is that it's within walking distance of several neighborhoods and the Johns Hopkins University. There is talk of promoting shuttle buses to the 12-acre hilltop site, which would help reduce traffic. And if all goes as planned, the Rotunda could attract the kind of buzz and patrons that swarm the new and improved Belvedere Square most weekends, offering yet another reason to crow, "I love city life."

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