Among the introductions of the mayor and other dignitaries at Hekemian & Co.'s official Rotunda groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, neighbor Genny Dill heard her name called.
"She lives right there," Hekemian Senior Vice President Chris Bell told a large crowd, pointing across the south parking lot to the row houses in the 3800 block of Elm Avenue in Hampden.
Dill serves on Hekemian's community advisory task force for the $100 million, mixed-use redevelopment project that began unofficially earlier this month, after eight years of planning and delays from the 2008 recession.
Now, Dill and her husband, Everett Noe, live with daily noise and other consequences of construction, including crews inadvertently cutting streetlight lines, she said.
Hekemian, the mall owner, plans to build 379 apartments, two parking structures, 152,000 square feet of revitalized and new retail space — including several restaurants — and a central plaza that the stores would overlook, with an interactive fountain, retail kiosks and outdoor gathering spaces.
There will also be 140,000 square feet of office space. The interior of the mall would be closed, except to enter the Rotunda Cinematheque movie theaters. Final completion of the project is expected by the end of 2015, but new retail tenants are expected to move in by the summer of 2015, Hekemian officials said.
A row of townhouse-style apartments would front on Elm, facing Dill's house. The project is permitted by zoning right. If it hadn't been, Dill says, the neighbors would have put up more of a fight with the Baltimore City Council and Department of Planning about setbacks and implications for area traffic and parking.
"It would have been set back (from the street) a lot more," she told a reporter, chuckling.
But despite her reservations about the plans, Dill grabbed a shovel and rubbed shoulders with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for the ceremonial dig and obligatory photo opps, then joined the crowd for a gourmet buffet lunch of steak and risotto under a large, white tent. There, public relations people handed out tiny ceremonial shovels, M&Ms with the word "groundbreaking" on them, and a program titled "Breaking New Ground: A Baltimore Icon on the Verge of Revival."
"For the most part, this hasn't been that difficult," said Dill, who is looking forward to new restaurants at the long-struggling mall — and whose biggest concern is getting the city to create a Residential Permit Parking area near it.
Although Hekemian didn't need residents' permission for redevelopment, the New Jersey-based company did a good job of reaching out to the Hampden-Roland Park area and getting community and business leaders involved, Dill said.
"While no one was looking forward to big buildings across the street, I think this is the best that that could have happened here," she said.
Community involvement was a theme that Rawlings-Blake picked up on in her remarks at the mall, 711 W. 40th St. While thanking Hekemian for investing in the city, Rawlings-Blake also said she thought that the collaborative nature of the project ensures it will be a development that "all of the surrounding communities will embrace and enjoy."
"This means something to them," Rawlings-Blake said. "To get this right was essential. We are in Baltimore. We rise and fall together."
Bryan Hekemian, whose family owns the mall, called the project "a fine example" of collaboration between communities and developers. His two brothers and his father also attended the ceremony.
Bell singled out for praise City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who was there with Councilman Nick Mosby and has ridden herd on the project since Hekemian purchased the mall in 2005. But Bell also gave a shout-out to residents and merchants like George Peters Jr., chairman of the zoning committee of the Hampden Community Council; Dill, secretary to the council, and Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.
"The task force has been fantastic," Bell said. "It has brought us the project we're going to see in the next 27 months or so."
Dill said she and other neighbors are anxious to see it finished — and to stop talking about it.
"A lot of us share the sentiment, let's get it done, let's get it over with," she said.