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Rotunda task force members have questions for redeveloper

Seven years have passed since Hekemian & Co. purchased the Rotunda and made grand plans to redevelop it as a mixed-use mall.

There would be apartments, additional office space and retail, restaurants and underground parking, and a new, state-of-the-art Giant Food store, Hekemian officials said. Stores would be turned outward to face a plaza, they said.

Then, the economy tanked and the plans never materialized. Hekemian talked of scaling back the redevelopment plan and adding a hotel to the mix. Those plans fell by the wayside as well.

Giant is closing its undersized supermarket in the mall and moving to the nearby Greenspring Tower Shopping Center this spring.

A task force of community leaders, convened by Hekemian to help plan the Rotunda's makeover, hasn't met in at least two years.

But now, as Giant departs and Hekemian recommits to some form of redevelopment, the task force is being reconvened Feb. 28. And its members have plenty of questions, starting with whether the New Jersey-based developer is really committed to the half-empty mall as a top priority and has the financial resources to reinvent a property that has languished for much of the past decade.

"I think the biggest question is, is Hekemian ready to move forward with this project and what the timeline would look like," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a task force member. "Hekemian got hit hard by the recession. But it has its own pecking order as we head into the recovery. Where are we on that list? Where are we in the national Hekemian pecking order in terms of timing and investment?"

And she asked bluntly, "What's their plan? I doubt the design will be the same at all."

Chris Bell, Hekemian's senior vice president for development and acquisitions, said earlier this month that he still wants to build apartments and bring in restaurants, and to replace the Giant store with a boutique grocer of no more than 20,000 square feet, such as Trader Joe's or Fresh Market, so as not to compete with Giant in its new location, under a recent deal between Hekemian and Giant.

Bell said hints of an economic recovery suggest "a window of opportunity" for redevelopment.

But there's a sense among task force members and officials involved in the project that after all this time, it is starting somewhat from scratch.

Hekemian's land use consultant for the project, Al Barry of AB Associates, said the Feb. 28 meeting will be "a get reacquainted meeting."

"There's no new plan," Barry said. "It's really to begin the community outreach that was pretty complete two years ago."

In phone conversations and emails, task force members said they are looking forward once again to what Barry called "an opportunity to redefine this space."

"I will be interested to know, for example, if the apartment piece is (still) important to their formula," said Cindy Leahy, Clarke's council aide and president of the Keswick Improvement Association. "If they don't present that, I will ask that."

Leahy and Clarke are also worried about what will become of the Rotunda and its vacant retail spaces if Hekemian's timetable for redevelopment is longer-range.

"I would like to see the place as leased up as possible," Leahy said.

"I personally hope we will get a Trader Joe's, one that will sell wine," said Susan Talbott, president of the Tuscany-Canterbury Neighborhood Association.

Judith Kunst, president of the Greater Remington Improvement Association, also wants a new grocery store, and noted that a 2011 Baltimore City health report for Remington, Hampden and Medfield called for more walkable grocery stores in those neighborhoods.

Phil Spevak, president of the Roland Park Civic League, said he is saddened to see to see the Rotunda decline.

"We haven't had any communication for over two years as the center became a drag on the community reminiscent of the decline of Belvedere Square," before that shopping center was redeveloped with city help in the early 2000s.

"We need to understand (Hekemian's) plans, when they expect change will occur, how their proposed changes will enhance the quality of life of the community and why they will be successful now when they weren't before," Spevak said.

Gary Sever, president of the Medfield Community Association, said he wants to know "whether they are planning to proceed immediately once they obtain the necessary (city) approvals."

Traffic and parking concerns are also on the minds of some task force members, including Hampden Community Council secretary Genny Dill, who lives on Elm Avenue overlooking the mall.

"I am very concerned about heavy trucks and equipment on Elm Avenue," Dill said. Even without redevelopment of the mall, "the street is in terrible shape. Every year it is refilled and patched, and every year it cracks and sinks."

Johns Hopkins University, which bought the old Zurich office building next door to the Rotunda and is using it for employees, is "interested in seeing that the development is an asset to (Hopkins) and to the broad community," said task force member Salem Reiner, director of community affairs for Hopkins.

Other task force members, like Joan Floyd, co-president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, are simply interested in observing the planning process for now.

"RNA's role, as before, is to be an observer and to support our neighbors in Hampden," Floyd said.

Task force member Jay Brodie, president of theBaltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development agency, has a personal as well as professional interest in the future of the Rotunda.

"I am a neighbor — and want very much to see The Rotunda improved," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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