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Back in business: Reconvened task force revisits Rotunda redevelopment

By Larry Perl, lperl@patuxent.com

12:20 PM EST, February 29, 2012

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Seating for 60 people was set up Feb. 28 in the hallway outside the old Tomlinson Craft Collection, one of many stores in the Rotunda that have closed in the seven years since Hekemian & Co. purchased the struggling mall in the Roland Park area and announced plans to redevelop it.

The seats were for members of a citizens advisory task force that Hekemian formed early on, before the economy stalled and the $180 million project of apartments, condominiums, a hotel, restaurants and underground parking went on the back burner.

Four years after its last meeting, Hekemian's senior vice president of development and acquisitions, Chris Bell, reconvened the task force and told members that the project, although scaled back, is still "absolutely a priority. When we buy something, we hang onto it. We're as excited about it now as we were the day we bought it."

Bell and Hekemian consultant Al Barry told the group that plans now call for a roughly $100 million redevelopment, still with about 300 apartments, but not a 22-story apartment tower, as first planned. Also gone from the plan are the condos, the hotel and the underground parking garage, as well as original plans for a new, state-of-the-art Giant supermarket in the back parking lot.

Instead, the project now calls for a five-story building with four stories of apartments and a lower level of additional retail, they said. Existing shops in the mall will be turned outward to face a plaza in the back lot, as originally planned, they said.

A six- to seven-deck above-level parking garage is now planned, Bell and Barry said. Several restaurants are also still envisioned and the mall is still expected to have about 140,000 square feet of office space, they said.

Best of all, for many residents, is that Hekemian plans to replace the departing Giant store in the mall with a smaller boutique grocer of up to 20,000 square feet, such as a Trader Joe's or The Fresh Market, under a deal with Giant Foods. Landover-based Giant is closing the mall store and relocating a quarter mile away to the old SuperFresh and Fresh and Green's space in the Greenspring Tower Shopping Center.

But Giant agreed to move out of the mall only if Hekemian agreed not to replace it with another major grocer that would compete with Giant at its new nearby location, Bell said.

The new grocer would occupy most of the 33,000-square-foot space that Giant is expected to leave this spring, Bell said.

The Rotunda Cinemas will also stay. Operator Ira Miller is adding a fourth screening room in the old Tomlinson space, Bell confirmed.

Bell told Phil Spevak, president of the Roland Park Civic League, that Hekemian has funding for the project and that Bank of America, which has closed its branch in the mall, is the lender.

"We're ready to put the pedal to the metal," Bell said. He said he hopes to start construction by next summer.

Barry estimated 18 months of construction.

The plans as presented still didn't satisfy Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who was hoping that Hekemian would move quickly to replace the Giant.

"We need to breathe some life into this mall," Clarke said. "We need to get a grocery store in there ASAP."

She said the mall is losing Giant, it's "public face," and also worries about other vacant spaces in the mall sitting empty for another two years or more.

"It's depressing," she said.

But Barry said he doubted a boutique grocer would be willing to lease space in the mall, only to have to close for 18 months once redevelopment starts.

The scrapping of plans for a 22-story apartment tower met the audience's approval.

"That's good," said Joe Jackson, of Wyman Park.