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Baltimore City to review Rotunda redevelopment plans

New plans for redeveloping the Rotunda face their first test from Baltimore City on Thursday, when mall owner Hekemian & Co. is scheduled to make a presentation to the city's Urban Design & Architectural Review Panel.

The six-member board, known as UDARP, provides the Planning Commission and the Department of Planning with design review expertise in the areas of urban design, architecture, and landscape design for "significant development projects," according to the Baltimore City government website. The board is of "critical importance within the Department of Planning's design review process," the site states.

"All proposed development projects in Baltimore City that require Department of Planning Site Plan Review also require design review," the site states.

Although the panel has no legislative authority, "the city has always taken (its) advice seriously and encouraged the developers (and) architects coming before it to be responsive," said Hekemian's local land use consultant, Al Barry, owner of AB Associates and a former Baltimore City planning department official.

Hekemian had already gone through a UDARP review for the previous version of Rotunda mall redevelopment, a $180 million plan in the mid-2000s that called for a hotel, condos, underground parking and a controversial 22-story apartment building, as well as a rebuilt, state-of-the-art Giant supermarket. But Hekemian shelved the project for several years because of the economy.

Hekemian's new, scaled-back, $100 million plan no longer calls for a hotel, a 22-story building or underground parking, although the plan still calls for stores turned outward to face a plaza where the south parking lot is now. The new plan was first presented to an advisory task force of area residents that Hekemian reconvened in February after a long hiatus.

Now, the revised plan is going back before UDARP. Several panelists saw Hekemian's presentation for the earlier version, "but we will review the earlier plans and present the revised concept," Barry said in an email Saturday.

Barry also said Hekemian might present more details than it has presented to the citizens task force.

"Our architects have been working on the plans and may have more updated plans than what the task force saw at our last meeting," Barry said.

Already known is that Hekemian hopes to find a boutique-style grocer such as Trader Joe's or The Fresh Market to replace Giant, which closed its undersized, 41-year-old store in the Rotunda mall in March and moved down the street to the former SuperFresh and Fresh & Green's space in the Green Spring Tower Square shopping center in Hampden.

But it's unclear whether a new grocer would or could move in soon, only to have to close temporarily once redevelopment begins.

"One of the (grocery retail) groups we're working with has expressed a desire to move in as soon as possible. We're hoping the logistics work out," Barry told the task force last month. "Retailers like parking and access. That's going to be a challenge."

Barry and Chris Bell, a senior vice president for Hekemian, have also given the task force a more detailed timetable for getting Baltimore City approvals and permits and starting construction. They're hoping to seek design approval from the city Planning Commission in late August or early September, they said..

They also said they hope to apply for building permits in December.

"We're pushing as fast as we can," Bell told about 15 task force members who attended the meeting in the mall on June 26. Hekemian would like to break ground by April or May of 2013, Bell said. He estimated the construction period as 20 months.

The new plans call for about 300 apartments, aimed at empty nesters and young professionals, and a new loading dock, Bell said. The project also calls for a five-story building with four stories of apartments and a lower level of additional retail. A six- to seven-deck, above-level parking garage is planned, as are several restaurants, Bell said. The mall is still expected to have about 140,000 square feet of office space, he said. The four-screen Rotunda Cinemas will also stay.

The plaza is envisioned as hosting concerts and festivals to make the Rotunda "more of a gathering place," Bell told the task force in June.

Bell also said New Jersey-based Hekemian has funding for the project and that Bank of America, which has closed its branch in the mall, is the lender.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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