Leaders hope H&M opening ushers in new era of downtown shopping

Officials see signs of shopping revival

May 18, 2011|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she is thrilled about the opening Thursday of Swedish retailer H&M in the Inner Harbor — and part of it's for personal reasons.

Rawlings-Blake is into fashion, but she doesn't want to spend a lot to stay on top of the trends. H&M is known for fashion on the cheap, and the mayor might just become one of its best customers.

But more importantly, Rawlings-Blake said, the opening of the 20,000-square-foot store that takes up two floors at The Gallery pavilion on Light Street is also helping to usher in a much-needed improved shopping experience along the city's waterfront.

"I am so excited about H&M coming here," she said. "I had to force myself to think about it as mayor and not as a customer."

General Growth Properties, the owner of Harborplace and The Gallery, has spent the past several months trying to reposition the property as one that could attract not only tourists, but also residents and local workers. The overhaul included some of the most sweeping changes since Harborplace opened on July 2, 1980.

The revamp came after several key national tenants — J. Crew, Origins, White House Black Market — closed up shop, leaving the center with gaping vacancies.

H&M is the most significant retailer to come under the new plan. Lenny's Delicatessen, a local eatery, opened recently in the Pratt Street Pavilion of Harborplace, in the first-level restaurant space formerly occupied by California Pizza Kitchen. Francesca's Collection recently opened in The Gallery. It's Sugar will open a candy shop in a 3,100-square-foot space on the first floor of the Pratt Street Pavilion this summer.

"I think this is a big improvement," said Rawlings-Blake. "Harborplace is getting a facelift with a few new national stores, but GGP is also making sure the local flavor is still there."

Christopher Schardt, senior general manager for the shopping complex, said the company plans to announce at least three additional new tenants soon. Those openings will leave the complex almost fully leased, he said. He declined to provide a specific vacancy rate.

"We've seen a great deal of momentum and interest from retailers and restaurants interested in the complex in the last 12 to 18 months," he said.

Downtown boosters said H&M's interest in the complex shows that Harborplace and The Gallery can support strong retail tenants.

Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler said the store should serve as a magnet to draw in shoppers who will then spend at the smaller retailers. He said it should give city residents who shop in the suburbs a reason to spend their money closer to home.

"The opening of H&M continues to reflect the changing nature of downtown and its evolution from the older commercial district to the more diverse mixed-use community," Fowler said.

About 41,000 people now live within a 1-mile radius of Pratt and Light streets.

Representatives from H&M said they believed the store would do well because of the mix of people who frequent the area. It is opening next door to an Urban Outfitters.

"We are always looking for really good locations with strong foot traffic and a good retail mix," company spokeswoman Nicole Christie said. "We thought that Harborplace and The Gallery was a great fit for the brand."

H&M will give away gift cards and offer promotional pricing all weekend to celebrate the opening of the store. The store will carry kids, men's, women's, teens and maternity wear. It also has an extensive accessories and underwear section.

Shoppers at Harborplace and The Gallery say they have noticed the increased shopping options and look forward to H&M opening.

"Downtown is growing and expanding," said Katelyn Brown, a 20-year-old student at Morgan State University. "I'm proud of Baltimore."

Some merchants aren't convinced the arrival of stores such as H&M will help their business.

Fred Callhan, who works at a sunglasses shop, said the shopping complex is becoming too much like a mall.

"It is mostly tourists that come here, and that concept doesn't work for that," he said.

But Josh Cook, who works at The Harborplace Store, a Maryland-themed T-shirt and souvenir shop, said people have been asking about the opening for weeks and that it certainly can't hurt business.

"It will make more people come," he said.



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