Hekemian to break ground on Rotunda in September

Groundbreaking for Hekemian & Co.'s two-year, $100 million redevelopment of the Rotunda will be Sept. 3,.

Most of the struggling shopping mall's remaining retail tenants must leave ahead of construction, but office tenants will remain, officials said.

Chris Bell, senior vice president for the mall's New Jersey-based owner, met with 30 community leaders and elected officials at the Rotunda on Tuesday to tell them about the plans.

Also on hand were executive vice president Brian Hekemian and officials of Buzzuto Construction Co., the builder.

Bell said Hekemian has decided on a grocer to replace the Giant Food store, which moved to the nearby Green Spring Tower Square shopping center. He wouldn't name the grocer, saying a lease is still being negotiated.

MOMS Organic Market has emerged as a leading candidate, according to several sources.

Most retail tenants were on month-to-month leases and knew well in advance of the plans, Bell said. Only the Casa Mia restaurant, the Rite-Aid pharmacy, and the Rotunda Cinematheque movie theater and coffee shop will remain open. Casa Mia must leave for the first three months of construction before it can return in January 2014.

Radio Shack and Hair Cuttery are joining Giant at Green Spring Tower Square. It isn't clear what will happen to most of the other tenants, including Rotunda Cleaners and Rotunda Opticians.

Hekemian & Co. plans to redevelop the mall with a mix of apartments, town houses, restaurants, additional retail and an eight-story parking garage for mall-goers. Construction of the garage and work on the interior of the mall would be finished sooner than the rest of the project, probably by early 2015, said Al Barry, a local land use consultant to Hekemian & Co..

The Baltimore City Planning Commission in February voted to approve the design of the Rotunda redevelopment project, the last major hurdle to reinventing the mall at 711 W. 40th St., in Hampden.

Plans call for 382 apartments, 182,000 square feet of additional retail and 153,000 square feet of office space. The interior of the mall would be closed and storefronts would be turned outward, facing a central plaza.

The redevelopment project is significantly scaled back from an original $180 million proposal that called for a 22-story apartment building, a hotel and underground parking. The project has been talked about since 2005, but the project stalled in 2008, due to lack of financing in a bad economy.

In addition to an existing citizens' task force, a separate construction task force will be formed to keep residents in the loop as redevelopment unfolds and respond to any complaints about the impact of construction on parking and traffic. The first construction task force meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 27.

Hekemian & Co. officials hope residents will "develop a direct relationship with contractors," Barry said "Anyone has a right to complain, but as a practical matter, we want a way for neighbors to understand what's going on."

No detours are expected on Elm Avenue or 40th Street during construction, Barry said.

"I wouldn't see any need for a detour," he said.

Bell said Hekemian has launched a new website soon, http://www.rotundabaltimore.com, as well as a Facebook page and other social media sites. The site replaces an earlier one, http://www.grandrotunda.com. There is also a Bozzuto hotline number to call, 1800-718-0200.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who attended the meeting, said she wants the construction committee to provide oversight on the project and to have one Buzzuto official that members can call consistently for help.

Remaining tenants and mall visitors had mixed reactions to the coming upheaval.

"How are we going to pay the mortgage?" said Wasif Safdar, whose family owns Casa Mia and is worried about how the eatery will survive for three months. He said his father is out of the country and the family only received two weeks' notice.

The comic book store Amazing Spiral is looking for a new space nearby and clerk Daniel Baker, 31, of Hampden, said," Wherever we end up will be a better location. It's kind of a dead mall honestly. It's been being redeveloped my whole life. I'll believe it when I see it."

Sitting at a table and working on his laptop in the hallway outside the theater, Marcus Hein, 30, a Johns Hopkins University graduate student, said he liked the quietude and throwback feel of the small mall.

"I told my girlfriend today, 'I'm going to go there again, because I don't know how much longer I can.'"

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