Black Friday Sale: Get 75% off a digital subscription

Cross Keys at the crossroads

Rhythmic thumping of techno music filled the air as a series of models draped in fall fashions strutted across the T-shaped runway.

In September, a majority of Cross Keys retailers joined together to produce a series of fashion shows to highlight new fall fashions. Store owners reported near-record sales. And the evening was capped by a fashion show and catered cocktail party celebrating the 40th anniversary of the boutique Ruth Shaw Inc. That day, Cross Keys seemed to return to its past glory.

"It was incredible here. There was so much energy," said Karen Ciurca-Weiner, manager and buyer for Jones & Jones, a boutique. "Every store here said the same thing. It was an energy that had been lacking for some time. We want to get that back."

That's the challenge for Cross Keys, the shopping center set amid James W. Rouse's planned community in North Baltimore. The longtime home of some of Baltimore's most fashionable stores has been contending with unprecedented competition. Now, with new stores and renovations in the works, its owners and shopkeepers are looking to reassert the center's position in Baltimore.

"We're looking to make Cross Keys a destination as an entire center," Ciurca-Weiner said. "We're trying to create a mix of events that appeal to all age groups."

The Village of Cross Keys was an early experiment for Rouse, who built the community for 5,000 on part of the Baltimore Country Club's former golf course in Roland Park. The community also included dozens of independent establishments whose offerings ranged from clothes shopping to gourmet dining. Through the decades, regularly drew affluent shoppers and visiting celebrities such as Gene Hackman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. When Oprah Winfrey lived in Cross Keys, she was known to frequent Cross Keys Deli.

Scott Wable, owner of the design denim boutique Jean Pool, recalls when he first worked in Cross Keys in 1999.

"We were slammed," he said, "It was so busy. We had three full-time employees working at the same time."

Competition for shoppers has grown in recent years. In addition to online shopping and the offerings in New York and Washington, Cross Keys has also had to contend with the addition of a luxury wing at Towson Town Center and the creation of Harbor East.

"When Harbor East opened, that's when it slowed down," said Wable.

Barbara Monfried, who worked at United Colors of Benetton during the mid-1980s, hasn't been to Cross Keys in seven years. She prefers areas that are more centrally located, such as Harbor East, Towson Town Center and Fells Point.

"Back then, all the stores did very well. There wasn't the pressure or competition," she recalled. "It was really more of a community."

Monfried said she would people watch during her breaks at Cross Keys.

"It was a really wealthy area. Everybody knew each other," said Monfried, who now works in Fells Point. "It was old money. It was all the Roland Park kids. They had store accounts."

Rene F. Daniel, a principal with commercial real estate brokerage Trout Daniel & Associates, said Cross Keys declined because of competition from Towson Town Center to the north and Harbor East to the south. Daniel believes Towson Town Center has had success attracting expensive stores because the owner, General Growth Properties, manages numerous shopping centers and can establish leasing deals across a number of outlets. General Growth formerly owned Cross Keys.

In addition, "Harbor East has affected all the retail in Baltimore," he said. "Harbor East represents major competition to the leasing effort in Cross Keys. The efforts to re-tenant the area have been slowly developing."

But store owners in Cross Keys say their center is building on its recent momentum. With several new tenants and a plans for a major renovation, Ciurca-Weiner and other members of the Cross Keys business community think they can capture the same magic that made Cross Keys one of the city's premier shopping areas for several decades.

"There is still a vitality here," Patti Bavis-Puller, owner of Chezelle, a boutique for full-figured women. She owned her boutique since 1992. "There is a good feeling."

Though the center is home to names such as Williams-Sonoma, Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa and Chico's, many of the store owners feel that the area is ready for something new

After operating a pop-up shop in Cross Keys for the better part of the year, Renaissance Fine Arts recently relocated there from its Pikesville location. Men's boutique Samuel Parker Clothier will move into the center from its current Mount Washington store early next year.

The center's anchor hotel, the Radisson, has just completed a $6 million renovation project that includes a complete mechanical upgrade, improvements to furniture, fixtures and carpets, and the opening of a new Italian restaurant, Scoozi Ristorante.

Tom Cook, general manager of the hotel, said he anticipates 15 percent growth in the first year, and 25 percent over three years.

New York-based real estate firm Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. bought Cross Keys in 2012 and announced its makeover plans this month. The proposed renovation includes downsizing and modernizing the gatehouse at Falls Road to give the stores more visibility; updating signs and storefront exteriors surrounding the courtyard; and building a 30,000-square-foot fitness center. An indoor public pool where a tennis facility is now located is also likely. Although no redevelopment is planned, improvements would have to be approved by the city because Cross Keys is a planned unit development. Ashkenazy officials did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

"We're very excited about it," said Rosemary "Cookie" Schneider, owner of Pied Piper, a children's clothing boutique in the center. "You can't stand still in this industry. We think that the new owners will breathe new life into the center. We think it will bring new customers to the stores."

"I think it's exciting to have a face-lift," said Ray Mitchener, owner of Ruth Shaw Inc, the women's boutique. "It's time. It makes it a little more modern, functional and visible."

Wable is interested to see how the renovation will work.

"I liked what I saw," he said. "They showed us a mock-up. They say they are going to do this and that, but I want to know when."

Wable moved his boutique to Cross Keys in 2009 after a series of thefts from his then-Mount Washington location.

When he opened up just down the road in Cross Keys, Wable found a welcoming group of business owners and a familiar setting — he had worked at Ruth Shaw Inc. for five years before he opened Jean Pool.

"It's safe," he said. "It's been good. The customers are great."

Amy Sponseller knew she had to visit The Store Ltd. in Cross Keys for the perfect holiday gift for her co-workers. She settled on four square glass bowls by the German designer Walther.

"If you want special gifts, this is the place I go," the Towson resident said. "This is where you go if you want classy things."

Sponseller has been a regular of the store and the shopping area since she moved to the Baltimore area from West Chester, N.Y., in 1985. Although she said she frequents other locations such as Towson Town Center and other cheaper options depending on the buy, she keeps coming back to Cross Keys because of the customer service she finds.

"They [store owners] know what I like," she said. "You don't get that everywhere."

Sponseller's story is typical of the Cross Keys experience, according to Betty Cooke, owner of The Store Ltd.

"I could name plenty of other customers like that," said Cooke, who co-owns her home decor, clothing and jewelry store with Bill Steinmetz. The two have been in Cross Keys since the properties opened in the early 1960s.

At Ruth Shaw Inc., a boutique that just celebrated its 40th year in Cross Keys, lines such as The Row, Donna Karan, rag & bone and Jimmy Choo are the norm. It is that cadre of designers that routinely lands the Baltimore business among Elle magazine's top boutiques in the country. But it's more than the caliber of designers that sets the boutique and center apart from the rest, according to Mitchener.

"We actually have a real relationship with our clients," he said. "It's a passed on type of thing. The mother brings in her daughter."

It's that sense of community that business owners hope will return Cross Keys to shopping prominence.

"The days of the '80s — buying for the sport of it — is over. Now it's about having longevity in relationships," Mitchener said.

Changes at Cross Keys

What's new: Renaissance Fine Arts and $6 million renovation to the Radisson hotel.

What's coming: Scoozi Ristorante, which is scheduled to open this month; Samuel Parker Clothier opening in 2014.

What's proposed: Downsizing and modernizing the gatehouse at Falls Road to give the stores more visibility; updating signs and storefront exteriors; and building a 30,000-square-foot fitness center. An indoor public pool is also likely.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun