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Laurel Mall makeover begins with groundbreaking

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After going through ownership changes, scrubbed designs and, to the chagrin of local officials and residents, being several years behind its promised construction schedule, the $130 million makeover of the now-closed Laurel Mall is finally happening.

The groundbreaking, that some had prayed for and others doubted would ever be realized, was held today at the Route 1 site, marking the beginning of the long-awaited renovation of the mall, renamed Towne Centre at Laurel.

Developers of the project predict the facelift will be completed and the mall reopened no later than September 2014.

"I feel very good, happy to see things get started and glad this is finally happening," said Laurel Mayor Craig Moe. "This project has taken a lot of the (city) administration's time but we didn't give up on it and neither did the developers."

"It's been a challenge to turn this blighted sight around, but we're excited about it and never stopped believing in the project," said the lead developer of the project and part owner of the complex, Brian Gibbons, CEO of Owings Mills-based Greenberg Gibbons Commercial.

After the project experienced design and financial setbacks, GGC was brought in to head the mall's redevelopment last year by Boston-based AEW Capital Management and California-based Somera Capital Management, who bought the mall in 2006.

As opposed to the original plans to renovate the existing mall to the tune of $450 million, GGC came up with a more economical design that called for the shopping center to be demolished. According to Gibbons, that demolition will begin immediately.

"This will be a full demolition of the property, except for a portion of the upper (parking) deck, which will be refurbished," Gibbons said.

"We hope to have the demolition completed by March so we can start the physical construction. While it's being torn down, we will be updating the design plans and submitting them to the city."

A 'Main Street atmosphere'

Preliminary plans call for the mall site to be turned into an open air, mixed-use development, with entertainment, dining, retail, residences, lots of green space and areas for community events. There will be 435 upscale residential units built at the site and 400,000 square feet of retail space, down a bit from the initial proposal that called for 600,000 square feet of space for retailers.

Moe said he's pleased with the proposed designs.

"It has a Main Street atmosphere that's inviting to the community and blends in well with the community," Moe said. "The most important part is removing the old mall building. Once that happens, I'll be comfortable."

Although residents were hoping GGC would announce new tenants who will move into the mall when it is redeveloped, no new leasing agreements were revealed. Gibbons did say that Regal Cinemas will operate a state-of-the-art, 12-screen-movie theater near the Fourth Street side of the mall and that Burlington Coat Factory will remain at the shopping center, in a new store located on the other side of the mall from where it is now. Gibbons said the current Burlington store will be demolished last, and the store will close for about six months during construction.

Gibbons also confirmed the long-circulated rumors that a Harris Teeter grocery story is set to come to the mall.

"We do have a letter of intent from Harris Teeter. They are a high-end, full-service grocery store with prepared foods. We think they will be a great anchor for the project," Gibbons said.

"We have letters of intent with restaurants and other shops, but I can't reveal their names because the leases have not been signed and I don't have their permission to say who they are," Gibbons said. "One is a national sporting goods store and we have letters from a national shoe store and junior clothing retailer."

Gibbons added that they are marketing the mall to high-end chain and regional retailers, but not large tenants that were there in past years, such asMacy's.

This sits well with the city's economic development director, Karl Brendle, who is just pleased to see movement on the project at last.

"There will not be the traditional department stores there, but smaller apparel stores for men and women, similar to Hunt Valley (Towne Centre in Baltimore, a GGC redevelopment property) and Bowie Towne Centre, which I think will be great," Brendle said. "It will have a grand entrance, lots of green space and be a place for people to come and enjoy themselves. I like the way they are positioning it."

And although city and mall officials realize that the redeveloped Towne Centre at Laurel will not be on the level of the planned mega Konterra mixed-use development near Laurel and I-95, or Columbia and Arundel Mills malls, they do see it as giving Laurel residents a top-notch shopping center, with many of the amenities that they now have to travel to other areas to experience.

"With the way the city is changing and with new people moving here, Laurel Mall was holding us back," Brendle said. "We had the patience of Job in waiting this out, but it was well worth the wait because we're going to get something much better than what we had before."

A long time coming

And Brendle is right. Even before it closed in May of this year, the mall had taken a big plunge from its glory days when it opened in 1979, surrounded by major anchor stores, other quality retailers and droves of shoppers. But by 2001, as consumer shopping habits veered away from enclosed malls and with the opening of larger, nearby shopping complexes, Laurel Mall had begun to decline. Montgomery Ward's bankruptcy led to its store closing at the mall and, a year later, JC Penney left as well. By 2005, the mall found itself in a court-ordered receivership when its owners, Laurel Centre Associates, could not pay their debts.

In steps AEW and Somera, whose officials bought the mall in 2006 for $31 million, with promises of a $450 million makeover of the mall completed by 2009. They presented much-praised plans to City Council members in 2007, with a new name unveiled — Laurel Commons — and a commitment to begin demolishing the mall's parking deck later that year.

But the recession kicked in, making financing almost impossible to secure for most retail developments, including the mall. The project stalled, many retailers left and shoppers disappeared as the shopping center deteriorated. Residents were frustrated, as were city officials, who considered revoking the $16 million tax increment financing, or TIF, the City Council had approved for some infrastructure work at the site, to be paid back at a later date.

Five seemingly long years after the property was sold, GGC was brought in to breathe life back into the project, which they did; but as Gibbons said, it wasn't easy.

"The biggest challenge was coming up with a new design plan that made economic sense, and working with tenants who still had leases," Gibbons said, referring in large part toMacy's, whose officials owned the store's land and building; and Burlington Coat Factory, which had a long-term lease at the mall. Burlington is staying, but Gibbons said they made an "economic arrangement" withMacy's, although he would not disclose the amount of that agreement.

As the demolition takes place, the next steps for the project include getting storm water management approval for the site from Prince George's County officials. Gibbons said the mall will have an underground storm water system and environmentally friendly, collection systems throughout the property to handle rain runoff during storms.

The design plans will also have to be approved by the City Council and Planning Commission, since they are different from those initially approved by city officials, which Brendle predicted will happen soon.

"Everything we do is expeditious, especially for something like this," Brendle said. "This project is going to spur others that are in the pipeline and bring people to the area."

Moe agreed and added, "It will allow residents to shop here in the city and not have to go outside the city limits. Will the final project be all that we want? We hope so and I think people will be real pleased with it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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