As Rotunda mall redeveloper Hekemian & Co. prepares for a final city hearing before the Baltimore City Planning Commission this week, the local Graul's chain of upscale grocery stores is emerging as a leading candidate to be the new grocer in the mall.
"Graul's Market and Hekemian are still negotiating and negotiations are progressing," Dennis Graul, president of Graul's Markets, Inc., said in an-email Saturday.
The family-owned Graul's chain is one of three grocery chains vying to open a boutique market in the mall. Dennis Graul owns the Graul's stores in Ruxton and Mays Chapel. Other family members own two Graul's stores in Annapolis, plus one in Hereford in north Baltimore County, among others.
Chris Bell, a Hekemian senior vice president, confirmed that negotiations with Graul's are ongoing, but added, "We're talking to others, too."
Hekemian is seeking a grocery store of up to 20,000 square feet to replace a longtime Giant supermarket that left the Rotunda in March 2012.
Graul's is known for personalized service and prepared foods for customers who don't want to cook. But although the chain's reputation is as a specialty grocer, Dennis Graul said last year a store in the Rotunda mall could be "all things to all people," reflecting the area's socio-economic diversity and a large population of seniors, many of whom live in high-rises within walking distance of the Rotunda.
The news about Graul's comes as the mall redevelopment project faces a crucial hearing Thursday, Feb. 7, before the Planning Commission. The commission is expected to vote on the project after a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. in the Benton Building downtown.
Although area residents still have some concerns about the $100 million project — particularly traffic mitigation, design details and the potential effect on neighborhood parking — city officials predict the commission will give the final blessing that New Jersey-based developer Hekemian & Co. needs to break ground this spring, as expected.
The project has received final approval, with amendments, from the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel.
"We've already applied for building permits," said Al Barry, of AB Associates, a local land-use consultant to Hekemian.
Tom Stosur, director of the city Department of Planning, is a cheerleader for the mixed-use project that would add apartments, restaurants, a new grocer and parking to the struggling mall at 711 W. 40th St., in Hampden.
"We're extremely supportive of that project moving forward," Stosur said. "We know it's been a journey (but) we're feeling great about it."
The redevelopment project has been in the planning since Hekemian purchased the mall in 2005, but went on the back burner until last year, due to a bad economy. The project fits into Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal to add 10,000 households to the city in the next 10 years, Stosur said.
"What's not to like?" he said. "It's exactly the kind of multiuse we'd like to see there."
Stosur said Hekemian officials have been good about working with the city and addressing concerns. If there are any remaining sticking points, "it really is what I would consider small details at this point," he said.
Barry said the project is certainly a known quantity with area residents, because Hekemian has held roughly 40 community meetings since 2005, including with a citizens' advisory task force that Hekemian formed of residents representing Hampden, Roland Park and other neighborhoods around the Rotunda.
"It's not like people don't know about it or have an opinion one way or the other," Barry said. "I take away from the meetings that many people are happy with the project."
But Barry noted that the project is not as well known to the Planning Commission, which hasn't looked at it since 2007, when the original plan was reviewed.
"I'm interested to see how (the hearing) goes," he said.