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The Nose

Mall's Well?

Posted 2/23/2000

If you've spent any time at The Rotunda lately, it's hard not to wonder about the North Baltimore mall's future. First, the TCBY yogurt stand shut down. Then the Charm City Diner was suddenly vacant. And now the windows of Cook's Cupboard are filled with signs trumpeting a going-out-of-business sale.The Nose spent about 10 minutes eavesdropping on customers and clerks at The Rotunda one recent weekday and came away with a wide array of rumored causes: Anchor store Giant Food is leaving for bigger digs; Johns Hopkins is buying the building; the mall is losing money and about to be shuttered.

"I heard the whole Rotunda is going to be one big 19-plex movie house," chuckles Michael Richman, whose Recordmasters was the first small retail store to move into the venerable 41st Street building back when it became a mall in the early 1970s, about 50 years after it opened as the headquarters of the Maryland Casualty Insurance Co.

Perhaps the prophecies of doom are spurred by the recent disintegration of Belvedere Square, a bit to the northeast in Govans. But Dicky Darrell, who oversees The Rotunda's retail operations for property manager the Manekin Corp., says reports of the mall's demise are greatly exaggerated.

"With The Rotunda, because it's been successful and stable for so long, one or two stores close, and people think the world's going to end," Darrell says. "Frankly, it was time to make some changes."

Darrell attributed TCBY's demise to "poor management" and says the diner departed by "mutual understanding." (He declined to elaborate; other Rotunda merchants gave various, and conflicting, accounts of the eatery's departure.) Kathy Matava, owner of Cook's Cupboard, says she's closing the cookery store to concentrate on her other businesses, including a Rotunda shoe store, The Shoe Place. (Cook's Cupboard will be shuttered by July 4, she says.)

But if the closings don't bode ill for the mall itself, they are indirect parts of a larger five-year plan that Manekin has for The Rotunda, including sprucing up what Darrell admits are dingy-looking floors and bathrooms, giving the Giant and the Loews Theater space to expand, and attracting more upscale eateries and stores.

"In order to get better merchants in you have to weed out the weaker ones," Darrell says. "We're looking for merchants who are more promotional, who have a little more pizzazz."

Does "more promotional" mean chains? Could The Rotunda's status as one of the few local shopping emporia not dominated by Starbucks-style nationals be endangered?

Idy Harris, co-owner of The Bead, applauds the recent changes, saying she's all for anything that keeps the mall— home to her women's clothing and accessories store for a quarter- century—in the black. But she adds, "We aren't a bunch of chain stores, which I think is part of the appeal." Recordmasters' Richman asserts that "all the stores that are here now are the nucleus of the mall and won't change."

But Darrell isn't ruling anything out, saying there are still some shops whose registers aren't ringing as often as their neighbors'. Whatever the case, expect to see more changes soon—work on the new floors begins in the next few weeks, and don't be surprised to see a few more going-out-of-business sales as the mall's makeover progresses.

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