By Larry Perl, Baltimore Messenger
10:00 AM EST, February 4, 2012
As he often does, 97-year-old Dorsey Yearley sat on a bench with his cane in his lap outside the Giant store in the Rotunda in Hampden, people-watching on a Friday afternoon.
"This is plenty convenient for us," said Yearley, who lives at Roland Park Place, one of two retirement communities across the street.
But his cheerful tone turned mournful when told that one of his most reliable and essential destinations in the mall, the Giant Food store, is departing after 41 years and is relocating down the street to the Fresh & Green's store, formerly a Superfresh, in the Greenspring Tower Shopping Center.
It's only a quarter-mile away, but Yearley said, "We'd prefer to stay here."
The Rotunda, with its iconic bell tower, is a local landmark, and Giant has been one of its mainstays. Tucked inside the main entrance, it is about half the size of a state-of-the-art Giant.
Area residents and merchants have become increasingly concerned in recent years that a planned redevelopment of the mall has not come to fruition and that it appears half-empty. No tenants have replaced longtime businesses such as Bank of America, Tomlinson Craft Collection and Rotunda Liquors.
"When someone leaves, no one comes," said Shabir Malik, owner of Casa Mia, a popular lunch spot for the past 11 years.
Shoppers and merchants at the bustling Giant were buzzing Friday as they heard that the store is moving — and leaving the future of the small mall in doubt.
"So it's true?" neighborhood resident Carol Bishop asked Giant store manager Nick Hyson, who nodded.
"That's a shame," said Roland Park Place resident Robert Trattner, 91. "It won't be as convenient."
Giant will buy the Fresh & Green's at 1020 W. 41st St., as well as a Fresh & Green's in Parkville at 7709 Harford Road, Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Landover-based Giant, said Friday.
Giant's real estate division expects the sale to be completed by Tuesday, Miller said, and the company plans to renovate and open the relocated store in six to eight weeks.
The grocer had previously bid on the two stores when Superfresh's parent company sold them seven months ago during bankruptcy proceedings, Miller said. He declined to release the purchase price for the stores.
Employees and vendors at the Fresh & Green's in Hampden said they were told at an employees meeting Friday to pack up the store and move out by Monday night because Giant would be taking ownership by Tuesday.
Fresh & Green's employees said they were told they will still have jobs when Giant takes over, but what their jobs will be and how much they will be paid are to be determined.
Hyson, the Rotunda Giant's manager, said he would be the manager of the new store.
George Murphy, president of Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents employees at the two closing Fresh & Green's locations, did not return phone calls Friday afternoon. Tom McNutt, president of a local that represents supermarket employees in five Maryland counties and has worked with both supermarket chains, said it is normal for unionized workers to be transferred when ownership of a store changes.
Speculation has been widespread in recent weeks that the Fresh & Green's on 41st Street was closing. The Hampden store stopped getting produce about two weeks ago, said store manager Terry Collins, and many shelves were bare, including the meat cases.
Collins said Fresh & Green's Toronto-based management placed a hold last month on warehouse orders for the Hampden store but didn't tell him why. Orders to the Parkville store were also placed on hold, he said.
Matt Williams, CEO of Fresh & Green's parent company, Toronto-based Natural Market Restaurants, said in a statement that all of the company's other Maryland stores would continue to operate. Because of a confidentiality clause in the agreement with Giant, Fresh & Green's declined to comment on what prompted the stores' sale.
There had been speculation that the Johns Hopkins University, which owns the former Zurich office complex next to the Rotunda, might take over the Giant space, but that is not true, Hopkins spokeswoman Tracey Reeves said Friday.
Chris Bell, senior vice president of acquisition and development of Hekemian & Co., the New Jersey-based owner of the Rotunda, said Friday that that the space could be redeveloped with a boutique grocery store of up to 20,000 square feet.
Hekemian has long-standing plans to make over the site with a mix of retail, offices, apartments, restaurants and a parking garage. Those plans once called for Giant to close the current store, one of the oldest and smallest in the region, and to build a state-of-the-art Giant in the parking lot behind the mall.
But Miller, the Giant spokesman, said Giant is now "focusing 100 percent" on relocating to Greenspring Tower.
"It allows us to expand our presence in the Baltimore-area market," Miller said.
It also gives Giant a substantially bigger store right away, with 47,000 square feet in Greenspring Tower compared with the 33,000-square-foot store in the Rotunda, Miller said.
The Rotunda Cinemas movie theater is building a fourth screen where Tomlinson used to be, but some merchants, who requested anonymity, said they doubt the expanded theater will bring more foot traffic to their shops.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose 14th District includes the mall, said Friday that she thinks the Rotunda can survive and proceed with redevelopment without a supermarket, but that the plan would have to be scaled back, as it has been several times already.
"It will be harder. It will be smaller," she said. "But Hekemian will take care of the Rotunda."
Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Steve Kilar contributed to this article.
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