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Mobtown Beat

Safeway Away

Beleaguered Oldtown Mall Still Shopping for a Supermarket

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 6/4/2003

Fueled by weeks of rain, a lush jungle of weeds grows waist high in the expansive field bisecting East Baltimore's Oldtown Mall. However, the merchants who remain in this struggling, increasingly vacant shopping venue were hoping to see something else rise in this space: a brand-new supermarket.

Officers with the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development arm, told Oldtown merchants last fall that a Fairfax, Va.-based developer, the Peterson Cos., had a tentative agreement with the Safeway chain to erect a supermarket on the site. "We're as sure as we can be about this," Baltimore Development Corp. president M.J. "Jay" Brodie said of the Peterson initiative last October (Mobtown Beat, Oct. 16, 2002). However, as of mid-May, that deal appears to be stagnant.

"Due to internal operating issues, Safeway has determined they could not do this project at this time," says Kevin Malachi, who heads Baltimore Development Corp.'s commercial-revitalization efforts. He adds that Peterson's "exclusive negotiating priority"--an agreement giving the firm exclusive rights to market and develop the city-owned parcel--expires June 6. "[Peterson] is still aggressively marketing the area," Malachi says, noting that the Oldtown parcel was featured in Peterson's booth at the recent International Conference of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas, attended by Mayor Martin O'Malley and other high-ranking city figures.

Oldtown Mall, a pedestrian-only shopping area carved out of the 400 and 500 blocks of Gay Street as part of a celebrated (and costly) 1970s urban-renewal scheme, has fallen on hard times since losing most of its anchor stores in the 1990s ("Shopworn," Oct. 9, 2002). City-driven efforts to attract a supermarket to Oldtown--to both serve the community and provide new traffic for the mall--go back to 1992, and the Peterson plan is the fourth initiative to wither just short of fruition. Veteran merchants are increasingly cynical about chances that a market will ever be lured to their area.

"I hate to be the one to say 'I told you so,' but a supermarket isn't coming in here," says Allan Stein, who runs a 20-year-old furniture store on the mall. "Our time here is running out. Business is so slow now it's not funny."

"Here we go again," says Stephen Pinnick, who owns Model Men's Wear. "I'm disappointed. We need a draw for this area--something extra to bring people in."

The city has so far spent more than $600,000 acquiring and razing mall properties to create a roughly five-acre parcel to offer up to major retailers. (Included in the parcel is the site of the former city-owned Belair Market, an erstwhile member of the city public-market family before closing seven years ago.) Now the thinking is that this tract might not be large enough. Malachi says Baltimore Development Corp. is authoring a number of changes to the existing Oldtown Urban Renewal Ordinance to give the city the ability to acquire additional properties. The desired changes have to be submitted as a bill before the City Council, which may occur as soon as next month.

"It will allow the acquisition of certain additional properties . . . to create a larger development site with the intent of having a large grocery store and additional retail around it," Malachi says.

Malachi says the properties in question have not been determined but will likely include the dozen or so largely 19th-century storefronts on the west end of the mall clustered around a historic firehouse. (Serving as the Baltimore City Fire Museum, the firehouse is exempt from condemnation.) And though Malachi says the city would "wait until there was a firm commitment" from a land-seeking developer before exercising any additional condemnation powers, the potential for more demolition has alarmed some on the mall.

"They keep demolishing buildings but don't put anything up," says Kim Sanders-Fisher, an Oldtown community activist and resident of a block of restored 1830s rowhouses adjacent to the mall. "They already have enough space to put in what they want, they just need to be more creative about it."

She also feels the omnipresent threat of demolition keeps existing merchants from rehabbing their buildings. "We can't rejuvenate and renovate the area until they tell us there will be no more demolition," Sanders-Fisher says. "Nobody is going to start rebuilding their store if they think it might get torn down."

Sanders-Fisher has begun a drive to have Oldtown Mall become a Baltimore City Historic District, which she hopes might "draw a line in the sand" before what she sees as a condemnation-happy faction within the city government. Portions of the nearby Jonestown neighborhood were named a City Historic District earlier this year; designation provides incentives for rehabilitation and provides some protections against demolition.

Pinnick, who in addition to his clothing store owns four other mall properties that may face condemnation, is more philosophical about the potential loss of his properties. He says he might consider renting in any new retail space that was created.

"Acquiring property without getting a [major retailer lined up] would be jumping in front of the gun," he says. "But I don't really have a problem with [condemnation] if it can get something done. I've worked my whole life in the area, and this community is hurting. I want to live to see it come back."

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