With a collective sigh of relief and the lowering of a sign, demolition of the biggest eyesore in Laurel finally began this week. Laurel Mall, which has maintained a large footprint on Route 1 for more than 30 years and lately has fallen into disrepair, is finally coming down, to be replaced with this century's version of the shopping mall: An open-air grouping of stylishly designed, free-standing buildings that face a tree-lined parking area. As illustrated in the site drawings distributed by developer Greenberg Gibbons Commercial, the corner of Route 1 and Cherry Lane will no longer be dominated by a fortress-like, multi-level parking garage (that has been crumbling for years), but will offer an inviting entertainment and retail campus that beckons drivers to enter from Route 1 on a wide promenade.
Perhaps no other single development in Laurel has had the potential to bring such sweeping change to the city's streetscape. The new Towne Centre at Laurel promises to bring a movie theater back to the city and to add an upscale grocery store (likely Harris Teeter), together with new restaurants, a sporting goods store and more than 400 new residential units.
Sounds too good to be true. And for many residents, that's what they fear. The "I'll believe it when I see it" reaction, heard repeatedly at the Aug. 14 groundbreaking, is easy to understand, since residents have been waiting, and waiting, for something to change. First we had to watch as stores left the mall; then the parking decks began to crumble and seemed to not be repaired; then an earlier over-the-top plan to transform Laurel Mall into Laurel Commons (with many of the promised treats the latest plan includes, such as movie theaters and restaurants) never materialized; and finally, major anchor Macy's packed up and left earlier this year.
After the latest plans were revealed in March 2011, residents became impatient waiting for the mall to close and for some sign of the promised demolition to begin. Delays came when the mall's owners had to negotiate with Macy'sand Burlington Coat Factory. Then in December, Mayor Craig Moe asked developer Greenberg Gibbons to delay demolition of the mall's parking deck, which was scheduled to begin before the end of the year, until after the holiday shopping season. It began to feel as though the aging, neglected mall would never be taken off life support.
But Tuesday's groundbreaking ceremony, attended by close to 200 invited city officials and local politicians, followed by the actual demolition that was expected to begin within days, went a long way toward convincing all of us that a new "mall" was, indeed, coming to Laurel. Developer Greenberg Gibbons has promises to keep.