Is Redevelopment Finally Coming to Oldtown Mall, or will the Battered Strip Remain a Boulevard of Broken Dreams?
Looming over the rear of the store is a faded sign stating that smart people shop here. Only nobody is shopping here this morning. And a lack of customers is a condition that Pinnick--clad in a purple polo shirt, his midrise Afro ringed with gray--seems quite familiar with.
"Let's just say I sell about one suit a month," he says with a resigned grin.
Pinnick began working at Model in 1963, hired on as a part-time salesperson while still a student at nearby Dunbar High School. He worked his way up to manager and in 1977 bought the business from the Steinberg family, which had run it for decades (like many merchants along this stretch, the family had at one time lived in rooms above the shop). Back in the day--the 1960s, '70s, and into the '80s--Pinnick recalls the area was jumping, and Model did brisk business. Around the holidays, they sometimes had to lock the front door to keep the customers at bay--"we could only let so many in at a time," he says.
Today, the once-bustling shopping strip is a veritable ghost town. Few shoppers, few shops. "I wake up each morning and pinch myself--am I still here?" Pinnick laments. "I guess if didn't own my building and some [other rental properties], I'd be gone with the rest of them."
Philbin slides into commercial break, and Pinnick settles down to another day spent minding the empty store and switching channels.
The "rest of them" that Pinnick alludes to are the dozens of business that have shut down in Oldtown. The signs still hang on the lifeless buildings: SuperKids, Happy Discount Store, Gibson Clothing, Kaufman's, Discount Shoes--these are just some of the score of stores resting quietly behind graffiti-covered roll-down steel doors. The mall's vacancy rate approaches 65 percent.
The buildings themselves, though some are a little worse for wear, represent an impressive collection of historical architecture: Italianate Victorian storefronts; stout, turn-of-the-century commercial buildings; even a few diminutive two-and-a-half-story, dormered rowhouses from before the Civil War. If they were on the water or in Federal Hill, they would be filled with bistros, boutiques, and professional offices. But orphaned here in hardscrabble East Baltimore, they're dark and decaying.
At the center of the mall stands a modernist metal tower. Once topped with an electric sign giving the time and temperature, the brown steel edifice is now primarily a roost for pigeons. A plaque at its base reads old town mall a center of community life. Given the lifeless surroundings, it would seem a cruel joke--until you see the date the plaque bears: 1975. The plaque commemorates the nearly $3 million urban-renewal scheme that swept through the area 30 years ago, the one that first converted Gay Street into a pedestrian mall. Celebrated at the time as model of urban renewal, the effort sparked years of vitality for the hoary shopping strip. But little now remains of this ambitious undertaking. Most of '70s-era lampposts have disappeared, leaving little more than bare wires sprouting from the ground. The renewal era's costly masonry walkways are rife with holes and dotted with the crumbling vestiges of cement planters. An erstwhile fountain now serves as an impromptu public urinal.
But renewal hope springs eternal. And hope for the area's revival lies in what, at first glance, would seem the unlikeliest of places: a five-acre vacant field bisecting the mall that's sprinkled with broken glass and dotted with sapling weed trees. For more than 175 years this was the site of the Belair Market, a venerable member of the city's family of public markets. (Belair closed some six years ago; its last shed was razed this past summer.) To the city, this is not just a weedy field, but a prize development parcel--one they've been promoting for a decade.
"I'm excited about Oldtown Mall," says Kevin Malachi, the city's director of small business and neighborhood development (formerly under the Department of Housing and Community Development but shifted to the auspices of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. this summer). "I'm more excited now than I've ever been."
His enthusiasm likely stems from being on the verge of landing a developer for the site. Malachi is hush-hush about particulars, and says all will be revealed at a public meeting Oct. 8 (by which time this paper will have gone to press). The last developer reported to be interested in the site was Fairfax, Va.-based Peterson Co., which is considering a plan to bring a Safeway supermarket to the field (Mobtown Beat, July 24).
Most mall merchants--the 36 or so that still have their lights on--are giddy at the business-bolstering prospects a big supermarket could bring. More foot traffic. More life.
But the merchants' hopes are tempered by the pernicious rumors that are wafting up and down the mall's walkway--rumors that the city-led demolitions that helped create the field of dreams are not over. Some merchants fear they won't be around to witness the vitality a supermarket could bring to the mall. Among those worried is Pinnick, who is fearful that much of his 400 block of the mall, just west of the field and home to only a handful of shops, is ripe to be pushed over for a parking lot. "I've been here since '63--they're not just going to beat me up," Pinnick says.
Malachi has heard the rumors, too, but in his play-it-close-to-the-chest fashion, he is not prepared to confirm or deny. "If it's to the benefit of getting new retail into the community and revitalizing the current commercial structures, [further condemnation] may be something that would be considered," he says.
Malachi's campaign to lure development to Oldtown has been intense. He has paraded the area's potential before developers from California to Michigan, driven numerous van loads of power-suited money folks through the dog-eared strip. But then he has only been on the job two years. While the mood among the mall's longtime inhabitants can be described as guardedly optimistic, there is also a healthy undercurrent of jaded pessimism. Over the past decade, no fewer than three other supermarkets and/or developers have been awarded development rights to the parcel, and to date the weed trees still run the place.
Jessie Collins is one of the many merchants who have been down this road before. She has run the small Lady J'ae Beauty Supply outlet since 1992. After a few healthy years, her business nosedived in '95 to the point that she's now "just paying the bills."
"We've been hearing about a grocery store for years and we haven't seen anything yet," she says. "It's the same old story over and over. You know, if this was the Inner Harbor, it wouldn't look like this. We're not asking for a whole pie, we just want a little piece."
What Oldtown ultimately gets--a slice of the opportunity pie or another empty plate--remains to be seen. But a larger question begs an answer: How did Baltimore's erstwhile commercial heart--and later a nationally praised urban-renewal showplace--become a moldering island of inactivity?
Baltimore's Oldtown community deserves the name. It really is an old town--first settled in 1661, several years before any roofs were raised on the west side of the Jones Falls, in what would become Baltimore Town. Gay Street, named after Nicholas Ruxton Gay, who surveyed the area in 1747, began life as a wagon trail. Farmers from as far away as Pennsylvania brought horse-drawn loads of produce and livestock down this route, which led to the founding of Belair Market around the 400 block of Gay in 1813. Rowhouses soon spread across the environs--homes for the German, Irish, and Italian immigrants then flooding into the city--and Gay Street developed into a center of commercial activity.
According to Stanley Zerden, president of the Oldtown Mall Merchants Association and vice president of the family-owned, 77-year-old Queen's women's clothing store, Gay's glory years as the center of citywide economic activity spanned 1880 through 1910. Thanks largely to the major department stores that blossomed on Howard Street, downtown Baltimore's west side ultimately developed into the city's largest and most fashionable shopping area. Gay Street settled down to the business of serving mainly the working-class residents of East Baltimore.
After World War II, the area's fortunes began to slide. The suburbs were on the rise, white flight took off, and the area's poor black population soared. In the late '50s, the city erected the Lafayette Courts and Flag House Courts high-rise public housing projects to deal with the tide of impoverishment.
A late-'60s city planners' survey of a 90-acre chunk of Oldtown concluded that it was among the poorest sections of the city--a veritable warren of cramped, crumbling rowhouses on narrow streets. An ambitious, demolition-heavy urban-renewal plan was developed, one that called for replacing almost all of the area's existing housing.
"It was very blighted area," says Robert Embry, the city's commissioner of housing between 1968 and 1977 and current head of the local Abell Foundation philanthropic organization. "The word we used at the time was 'slum.'"
The renewal push was given even greater urgency after April 1968, when riots erupted around the country following the slaying of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "The riots in Baltimore started right at the Belair Market," Pinnick says. "Somebody just went in and grabbed some produce and threw it on the floor--and whomp, that was it. It was like putting gasoline on a fire."
The 400 and 500 blocks of Gay were spared the worst of the burning and looting; Pinnick says the strip's many black employees confronted the rioters, pleading with them not to burn them out of their jobs. Farther east on Gay, things went badly. Whole blocks were torched. An $8 million-dollar renewal plan for the Oldtown area won City Hall's approval in 1970--the costly undertaking made palatable, perhaps, because the lion's share of the costs were picked up by the federal government.
In the middle of all the decay sat the Gay Street merchants. Most had successfully adapted to the neighborhood's new customer base and remained solvent: "The faces might have changed, but the general economic makeup of the area didn't change all that much," Zerden says. But Gay Street itself--first laid out in the age of horse carts--was changing. Auto traffic now clogged the narrow street, and parking was problematic at best. Back in the '60s, a number of prominent Oldtown merchants conceived the idea of converting the 400 and 500 blocks of Gay into a pedestrian-only mall.
"We were very much in favor of the mall, and pushed for it very hard," says Seymour Farbman, past president of Oldtown Mall Merchants Association and owner of the Diplomat Shop men's clothing store, which closed in 1996 after 66 years of family ownership. "We thought it would make it into a nicer, more pleasant place to shop. At the time there were lots of busses and traffic going up the middle of the street."
Perhaps because there was precedent for such a move--downtown, the city had converted the 200 block of West Lexington Street into a mall in the mid-'60s--the Oldtown Mall concept was folded into the area's larger renewal effort. Fueled by an additional $2.6 million (again, largely federal dollars) the Gay Street roadbed was replaced with masonry blocks, new lighting and other amenities were constructed, and some additional buildings were cleared to provide parking at the rear of the stores. The merchants, meanwhile, became subject to a renewal ordinance requiring them to spruce up their store facades--removing garish overhanging signs and other modernizations that detracted from the 19th-century aesthetics. Washington money helped here, too, in the form of low-interest federal loans the store owners could tap into.
Mayor William Donald Schaefer opened the first phase of the mall in July 1975 by ceremonially starting water leaping in a decorative fountain. Newspapers lauded the mall under headlines such as "Oldtown Mall--Living Proof of Renewal" and "Oldtown Teaches New Town Lesson." City officials from around the country flocked to take a look at Oldtown.
"I think it was the first retail mall in a poor neighborhood in the country, at least that's how we described it at the time," Embry says. "We were very optimistic about it. The store owners were very enthusiastic and agreed to fix up their stores, and the design was attractive. We were all very proud of it."
The shoppers came and the cash registers rang. The mall did get a black eye in 1979, when looters took advantage of a 23-inch snowfall and ransacked a number of stores. But, generally, business was good. Meanwhile, Harborplace opened in 1980 to become the city's newest nationally praised urban-renewal darling.
"There was good business down there through the late '80s," Farbman says. "It was in the early '90s that it really began to decline. We started to see crime and a lot people just hanging around. And the shopping movement was to the suburban malls. We did everything we could to get better security and make it a safer area."
By the '90s the mall's infrastructure was also beginning to crumble, and the city's upkeep waned. Many mall merchants blame Mayor Kurt Schmoke, elected in '87, for the decline. Some even believe Schmoke's perceived lackadaisical approach to Oldtown's woes was deliberate--a payback for the '87 election, when East Baltimore threw its support behind mayoral-race rival Clarence "Du" Burns. Schmoke did make periodic pilgrimages to meet with the Oldtown Mall Merchants Association, an event that was always good for a quick fix or two.
"I recall seeing [city work crews] painting lampposts in the rain," Pinnick says with a laugh. "I'd never seen anything like it, but it was all because Schmoke was coming to meet with us."
Confronted with crime and grime, some jaded shoppers--even the less-mobile neighborhood residents Oldtown depended on--started traveling to greener shopping pastures. But even greater challenges awaited Oldtown.
On the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1995, a thunderous roar echoed across East Baltimore. It was the sound of 995 pounds of dynamite imploding the six, 11-story Lafayette Courts public-housing towers. Most folks cheered when the brick monoliths disappeared into a cloud of dust--the dramatic end to a failed experiment some branded "warehousing the poor."
But the rumbling crash of Lafayette's demise resonated differently across Orleans Street along Oldtown Mall. The blast evaporated some 800 apartments--once home to thousands of shoppers.
"When Lafayette Courts came down it hurt us," says Zerden. "We lost a big customer base when they were gone."
In 1997, Lafayette was replaced with the Pleasant View Gardens townhouse community, Baltimore's first "Hope VI" community, a federally driven initiative to replace high-density public housing with smaller, economically mixed developments. But Zerden stresses that four long years elapsed between the clearing of the first occupants from Lafayette and the first residents arriving at Pleasant View--which even at full capacity holds half as many people in its 311 units as the former high-rise development. Census data shows that the Oldtown area lost 32 percent of its population between 1990 and 2000.
Oldtown merchants began to feel the pinch of a reduced customer base, and shops began to shutter. But some of the closures were the result of larger market pressures--namely increased competition from big-box chains such as Wal-Mart. Local discount-store chains Epstein's and Goldstein's went out of business in the 1990s; and the national five-and-dime chain McCrory's filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and started to close stores; all three had outlets in Oldtown. And just to make matters worse, the multifloor Kaufman's department store, one of Oldtown's biggest merchants, closed in 1997 following the owner's death. "In just a few years time we lost most of the important anchors we had," Zerden says, "And nobody stepped up to replace them."
Withering along with the mall was the venerable Belair Market. "The market just deteriorated and went through a slow dying process over a period of time," Farbman says. The last merchants left the market in 1996, and the lights winked out on 183 years of mercantile history.
To the list of 1996 losses, you can add Farbman's once-bustling young men's clothing store. "People just refused to come down anymore," Farbman says. "I was losing money, and it just seemed pointless to stay." Another factor in his business' decline had to do with the world of fashion, which had become less racially delineated. In his store's '60s and '70s heyday, he notes, his overwhelmingly African-American clientele "didn't want to wear what the general public wore, and I sold them the styles they were looking for." Today, however, "they're wearing the same suits they sell at Nordstrom."
If the surviving merchants looked for a lifeline amid the rising tide of problems, it was the city's plans to bring a supermarket to the mall--plans that began in 1992, when the city sought to attract a limited-service grocery store to the mall to complement the offerings in the market. The local Stop, Shop, and Save chain signed on to the proposal. Fearful the new store would drive them out of business, the remaining Belair Market merchants rose up against the idea, successfully delaying the deal for six months. Eventually, the project withered.
City Hall switched gears and decided to attract a full-sized supermarket to Oldtown. The city had spent more than $600,000 to acquire and raze a number of largely vacant mall buildings to create a large enough development parcel. Zerden still has a rolled-up copy of the supermarket plans drawn up in 2000 by Lutherville's' Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust, which the city ultimately selected to develop the site. The store plan had everything: a handsome design, plentiful parking, and a frontage on the mall itself to maximize potential foot traffic. But Mid-Atlantic is a real-estate developer, not a grocer. What the proposal lacked was a tenant--Safeway, Giant Food, or some other chain willing to move into the proposed building. The developer spent 18 months trying to entice a grocer to the site before this project withered as well.
In 2001, the city went supermarket shopping again and, after soliciting proposals, it again tapped the Stop, Shop, and Save chain for Oldtown. This time, the grocer couldn't arrange sufficient financing. Another project withered.
So, is the fourth time charmed? Most merchants hope so, but they're not doing cartwheels yet. For Lady J'ae owner Collins, the reasons behind the fruitless supermarket shuffle are patently simple--and very ugly. "Let me just lay it on the table," she says. "This is a black area--[supermarkets] are not coming in here."
For Pinnick--the potential loss of his building notwithstanding--the latest news is cause for a head-shaking grin. "The city has been telling us the same tale for 11 years--11 years!" he says. "They keep showing us these pretty pictures, they say we're ready to go, and then the door closes again."
Zerden fashions a diplomatic--but realistic--response to the latest developments. "There is no question that the current administration is completely committed to getting this done," he says. "But we've heard this so many times before. Nobody is going to believe it until the contract is signed, a hole is dug, and a sign goes up."
On a drizzly Thursday night in late September, about 20 Oldtown merchants, property owners, and residents met over heaps of Chinese food. The setting was the Red Parrot, the mall's newest restaurant. The topic was the future of the mall.
"What has happened in the past is the past--this is a new beginning," said Michael Wise, president of the 2-year-old Urban Family Wear clothing store.
The gathering--one of the largest meetings of Oldtown stakeholders in years--demonstrated that even without the prospect of a shiny new supermarket, there's a movement afoot among the merchants to breathe new life into the area. Some of the older merchants, and a growing cadre of new ones, seem to be shaking off a literal mind-my-own-business mind-set to take a big-picture look at their circumstances. There's been talk of having the mall apply for national and local historic district status, which would allow building owners to collect tax credits for historic renovation work. Together with monies available through a state-run business facade improvement program, Zerden figures building owners could recoup 70 cents of every dollar spent on improving their buildings' appearances.
One topic that unites most all the area merchants is the belief that it is time to bring auto traffic back to the mall--to make it Gay Street again. As it stands now, many merchants feel isolated and overlooked.
"I get calls from people every day, and the first thing they say is that they're surprised we're still open," says Allan Stein, who runs the mall's 20-year-old furniture store, Supreme Furniture. "If we brought traffic back, people could at least see we're still here."
As part of the ongoing efforts to remake downtown's west-side shopping district, traffic has been returned to Lexington Mall, Oldtown's antecedent. Undoing urban pedestrian malls seems to be the trend.
"Pedestrian malls have generally been a failure in the United States," says Klaus Philipsen, co-chairperson of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects' urban design committee. "I think it would probably make sense to bring cars back to Oldtown. It would improve circulation. The traffic flow is somewhat curious now, and the mall is isolated."
Gay can never be the bustling artery it once was. As a result of new housing built during the '70s renewal efforts, the street dead-ends at the mall's eastern edge, site of a 19-story high rise housing senior citizens. But the merchants feel bringing limited traffic back--if only to allow motorists to discharge passengers--would help their businesses. Malachi says putting the street back is "something the city might take a look at in the context of whatever development occurs." One obstacle to de-malling the mall is the potential high price tag; the Feds aren't likely to pick up the tab in 2002.
While Oldtown might be mired in stasis, the same can't be said for the rest of East Baltimore. There are sweeping plans underway to transform 80 acres northwest of Johns Hopkins Hospital into a biotechnology park. There are two more Hope VI housing developments in the pipeline: Flag House Courts (on the site of high rises north of Little Italy, demolished last year) and Broadway Overlook (replacing the Broadway Homes housing project at Broadway and Fayette Street). There is also a new 500-plus-employee Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center slated to open early next year a block west of the mall.
"The best thing I can imagine for Oldtown is that it is viewed in the context of the biotech park and other master-planning efforts going on in East Baltimore," Philipsen says. "There is a lot of investment and changes coming into the area, and Oldtown Mall should get a spot in all of it. It should not be looked at in isolation but be seen as a gateway to East Baltimore."
Malachi wholeheartedly concurs, and says the Baltimore Development Corp. is committed to creating an overarching plan for Oldtown's future by year's end. But any examination of Oldtown's role in a potentially rebounding East Baltimore will have to take into account the realities of the contemporary retail environment. Studies have shown that Baltimore, with its quarter-million-plus drop in population since 1970, has a surplus of traditional shopping areas--established commercial strips featuring small-footprint stores. And it's worth noting that Wal-Mart established its first store inside city limits earlier this year. It is unlikely that Oldtown will ever return to its mercantile glory days when, Zerden says, the strip featured 14 outlets for women's clothing alone. Oldtown and districts like it may have to re-invent themselves, and one idea for Oldtown's re-emergence comes from a British-born woman who doesn't even run a business on the mall.
Kim Sanders-Fisher owns a home on the 600 block of Sterling Street, a middle-class enclave abutting the mall comprised of 1830s houses that were spared the '70s bulldozers and sold to "urban homesteaders" who bought the houses for $1 after pledging to restore and live in them. Worried about her street's property values and "tired of living next to a slum," she has become a boisterous crusader for the mall--badgering the city daily about the area's shoddy maintenance while beating the drum for a concept she calls the "Gay Street Global Village." Her idea is to market the mall as a haven for mom-and-pop ethnic shops: Caribbean restaurants, African art galleries, Asian gift outlets, Latino craft stores, and the like. "These small, often immigrant-run businesses are the type that can reasonably be expected to survive here," she says. "And they will be a citywide draw--the mall must be a destination to survive."
Many existing merchants say they support the idea, and Sanders-Fisher has collected hundreds of signatures on pro-global village petitions she has hung around the mall. Her worldly world vision is cheap and easy to realize, she says--a case of "market it, and they will come."
"If the city would just get behind the idea--if the mayor would refer to Oldtown as the 'Gay Street Global Village'--then I feel the [appropriate merchants] would start calling us looking for space," she says.
Malachi calls the international idea an "interesting concept" and "another consideration" but questions whether just promoting a new name for the mall is a "reasonable" way to bring about the desired change. "I've been marketing the mall very aggressively for two years, and I've never heard that kind of use before," he says. "We'd have to take a look at what it really means."
One thing is certain: The mall merchants are already an increasingly diverse group. Jews constituted the bulk of Oldtown's business owners throughout the 20th century, and a few remain. But today, African-Americans and Koreans are among the area's major stakeholders, and there are Chinese, Vietnamese, and Greek merchants as well.
"The city always says they support minority businesses," Sanders-Fisher says. "Well, we've got a whole street of minority business owners right here--put your money where your mouth is."
One mall minority-business success story is Sandra Tillman, an African-American entrepreneur who grew up in the nearby Latrobe Homes public-housing project. She founded Oldtown's Flair Hair salon 20 years ago and has overseen its growth into an operation where 17 stylists serve some 600 customers a week. But she is concerned with rumors from a "very reliable source" that her building in the 400 block may need to be demolished to accommodate new development.
"I don't really have a problem with moving," Tillman says. "I just don't want to get ripped off." She is alarmed that the city's assessed value of her property plunged by more than half last January, according to public records--an event she feels might portend that her property will be acquired for much less than she feels it is worth. "I'm seeking legal counsel," she says.
From his store at the opposite end of the mall, Zerden is a little more sanguine. Buildings are selling briskly along the mall, he says, and one to three people visit him a week inquiring about available properties. He is not entirely sure what's driving the renewed interest, outside of a general sense that better times are in the offing. And he says he has reason to believe some of the local chains with shuttered outlets on the mall--New York Fashions, SuperKids, and others--are poised to reopen their stores if and when substantial redevelopment occurs in Oldtown.
As to his own clothing business, it's slow at the moment. But he is not cowed by the big-box retailers that now encircle the city. "Our prices are every bit as good as Wal-Mart and Target," he says, adding that providing, good, old-fashioned service to inner-city folks can go a long way, too: "When our shoppers go to Target or Wal-Mart, the only people that approach them are security."
Most days, if the weather is clement, 77-year-old Bernie Delay--"Mr. Bernie" to most--can be found sitting on a folding chair before the faded green facade of his Old Town Tailors shop. He has been in the altering and cleaning business at 418 Oldtown Mall for 31 years and lives in an apartment upstairs. His roots are deep in the neighborhood: His father sold fish from a pushcart at the corner of Gay and Central Avenue--"stood on that corner for 55 years," he says. Like most Oldtown veterans, Delay reflects on the good, old days, when you "couldn't even walk up the street" for all the shoppers, when "they used to line up outside the door to have their suits altered."
"Now it's nothing," he says--a couple of folks a day might drop off dry cleaning. Inside the shop, a ceiling fan hangs from a yellowed tin ceiling, sending desultory breezes around the cluttered confines. Behind the Formica counter rests a hulking, green pedal-operated clothes press--"the oldest press in the city," Delay says.
As to the future, he's all for returning auto traffic to the mall. "They should have never messed with it," he says. And he figures a supermarket "could help bring people back." But then Delay, his face awash in silver beard bristle, views the area's many challenges with less urgency than most merchants--though he says it would be "outrageous" if the city forced his friend and neighbor Stephen Pinnick out of his property.
"My working days are over," he says. "I'm just holding out to see what happens. It's a shame to let an area so close to downtown go down like this. I just want to see what the end is going to be."
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