Route 40 in Ellicott City brings new retail into a stretch of the old

A new Giant is intended to revitalize aging retail along Route 40. #hocomd

A new, expanded Giant Food opened its doors today in Chatham Station Shopping Center in Ellicott City, bringing a fresh and new look to major retail along the nearly seven-mile stretch of Route 40 in Howard County.

Formerly located in a 43,000-square-foot building at Chatham Station that opened in 1973, Giant moved to a 63,000-square-foot location previously occupied by Sears. Resource Enterprises, the company that manages and leases the center, is working on negotiations with a national retailer to occupy Giant's old building.

Giant is at the forefront of the center's revitalization, said Jamie Miller, Giant's manager of public and community relations. "The location has been good for us for 43 years."

The move marks a major shift as Chatham distances itself from its image as a strip mall with a mix of local stores and national chains when it was built in the late 1960s. The only remaining remnant of the original strip mall, which was torn down following increasing vacancies in the late 1990s and since rebuilt, is the site of the new Giant.

Chatham has found a sustainable niche market along Route 40, said Natalie Swirdovich, a company representative for Resource Enterprises.

"We're not a regional mall," said Swirdovich. "We're more of an everyday needs kind of shopping center. This is our niche."

The Giant's freshly minted new location stands in stark contrast to neighboring aging retail shopping centers, where an overall push to revitalize has ebbed and flowed.

Development along Route 40 began in the 1930s when a new roadway was built on farmland and orchards. Gas stations and restaurants emerged in the late 1940s and '50s, giving way to shopping centers that have existed for decades.

Just two miles away, Once Upon a Child said goodbye to the county's oldest shopping center, Normandy Shopping Center, the site of ongoing revitalization.

The store that buys and sells gently used items for children moved from the center to the Enchanted Forest shopping center, 3 miles west on Route 40, according to Rhonda Nelson, the store's supervisor.

Normandy Shopping Center's golden days began to fade when the Miller Ford dealership closed in 2008 and Safeway did not renew its lease, leaving the center without an anchoring grocery store for the first time in nearly 50 years. Tenants gradually left the center over the last five years.

Now, the old shopping center is almost entirely vacant, said Rob Moxley, vice president of Normandy Venture Corporation.

For Chatham, the presence of at least two anchoring stores — Giant and Home Depot — has given the center a strong foundation, said Swirdovich.

"With anchor stores, we are in a great position to be a draw for smaller stores," said Swirdovich.

A similar push has been underway at Normandy for years.

In 2011, Normandy was rezoned as a Traditional Neighborhood Center to allow for the development of mixed-use commercial retail and residential. The zone is tailored for redeveloping old shopping centers by allowing residential units to make revitalization commercially viable. The proposal — particularly plans for an apartment complex — drew community opposition from neighbors who said the rezoning would saturate the market with excess residential development.

Plans to revitalize the old shopping center, which will likely be torn down, have not been finalized, said Moxley. The developer is searching for a partner to revitalize the center, which will likely include residential units behind a new commercial center.

"We have been searching for the best economically viable plan, but we haven't found what the best combination would be," said Moxley, whose great-grandfather bought the property in 1893 to house a farm.

Kelsey's Restaurant, an iconic fixture of a newer business center near the old shopping center, has found a sweet spot tucked away in the strip mall for more than 20 years.

Its large and local clientele has kept it going, said Mark Mays, general manager, who has worked with the restaurant for 15 years.

"We're constantly getting people who did not know we are here," said Mays, adding the push to redevelop Normandy has not negatively impacted business. "We've been here for 20 years. That says it all."

The newer business center, which was built in the 1980s, has few vacancies, the largest of which is a 14,000-square-foot space previously occupied by a health club, said Moxley.

At Arcadia Square, the newest retail center along Route 40 that welcomed its first tenants in January, leasing was a breeze, said Ken Bernstein, vice president of retail leasing at Davis S. Brown Enterprises.

"Route 40 is what I like to call the first commercial corridor," Bernstein said. "The income is so strong in this area. There aren't a lot of opportunities to get into the newer centers."

The county's 2004 market analysis study of Route 40, the most recent study by the county, envisioned an economically vibrant corridor accessible by diverse transportation and enlivened by anchoring centers in line with the corridor's history.

With two free-standing buildings fronting Route 40, Arcadia closely aligns with the county's age-old vision for Route 40.

The county is currently working on streetscaping and stormwater management projects as part of overall goals to improve sidewalks; increase connectivity between bicycles, pedestrians and cars; and orient buildings closer to the street, with buildings couched around open spaces and amenity areas, according to the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

The goal is to encourage more consistent aesthetics along the corridor.

"As you go down the road, it won't be much of a hodgepodge. You can see the changes over the last 10 years here and there," said Moxley, who co-chaired a county task force on revitalizing Route 40 several years ago.

Over the last few years, the corridor has seen an uptick in dining, casual and international supermarkets, according to the Department of Planning and Zoning.

In December 2014, international supermarket H Mart store moved into a former Shoppers Food and Pharmacy, as part of a recent growth in international supermarkets.

As Normandy, Enchanted Forest Shopping Center and other aging centers revitalize, the bottom line is "finding the right retailers," said Tom Maddux, a principal of KLNB Retail, a major commercial brokerage in the Washington, D.C. area.

The county has issued 10,416 square feet of retail business to Ellicott City in 2015, according to this year's annual Development Monitoring Report by the Department of Planning and Zoning. Three years ago, that number was at 64,361 square feet — the highest of any city in the county.

A decade down the road, Maddux said, the corridor's challenge lies in the ability of aging retail to reinvent itself to better fit the needs of existing tenants, even though vacancy rates are low overall.

"Courting retailers to pay attention to Route 40 is a long process," said Maddux. "A lot of it is about the timing."

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