As Rotunda mall redeveloper Hekemian & Co. prepares for a final city hearing before the Baltimore City Planning Commission this week, the local Graul's chain of upscale grocery stores is emerging as a leading candidate to be the new grocer in the mall.
"Graul's Market and Hekemian are still negotiating and negotiations are progressing," Dennis Graul, president of Graul's Markets, Inc., said in an-email Saturday.
The family-owned Graul's chain is one of three grocery chains vying to open a boutique market in the mall. Dennis Graul owns the Graul's stores in Ruxton and Mays Chapel. Other family members own two Graul's stores in Annapolis, plus one in Hereford in north Baltimore County, among others.
Chris Bell, a Hekemian senior vice president, confirmed that negotiations with Graul's are ongoing, but added, "We're talking to others, too."
Hekemian is seeking a grocery store of up to 20,000 square feet to replace a longtime Giant supermarket that left the Rotunda in March 2012.
Graul's is known for personalized service and prepared foods for customers who don't want to cook. But although the chain's reputation is as a specialty grocer, Dennis Graul said last year a store in the Rotunda mall could be "all things to all people," reflecting the area's socio-economic diversity and a large population of seniors, many of whom live in high-rises within walking distance of the Rotunda.
The news about Graul's comes as the mall redevelopment project faces a crucial hearing Thursday, Feb. 7, before the Planning Commission. The commission is expected to vote on the project after a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. in the Benton Building downtown.
Although area residents still have some concerns about the $100 million project — particularly traffic mitigation, design details and the potential effect on neighborhood parking — city officials predict the commission will give the final blessing that New Jersey-based developer Hekemian & Co. needs to break ground this spring, as expected.
The project has received final approval, with amendments, from the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel.
"We've already applied for building permits," said Al Barry, of AB Associates, a local land-use consultant to Hekemian.
Tom Stosur, director of the city Department of Planning, is a cheerleader for the mixed-use project that would add apartments, restaurants, a new grocer and parking to the struggling mall at 711 W. 40th St., in Hampden.
"We're extremely supportive of that project moving forward," Stosur said. "We know it's been a journey (but) we're feeling great about it."
The redevelopment project has been in the planning since Hekemian purchased the mall in 2005, but went on the back burner until last year, due to a bad economy. The project fits into Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal to add 10,000 households to the city in the next 10 years, Stosur said.
"What's not to like?" he said. "It's exactly the kind of multiuse we'd like to see there."
Stosur said Hekemian officials have been good about working with the city and addressing concerns. If there are any remaining sticking points, "it really is what I would consider small details at this point," he said.
Barry said the project is certainly a known quantity with area residents, because Hekemian has held roughly 40 community meetings since 2005, including with a citizens' advisory task force that Hekemian formed of residents representing Hampden, Roland Park and other neighborhoods around the Rotunda.
"It's not like people don't know about it or have an opinion one way or the other," Barry said. "I take away from the meetings that many people are happy with the project."
But Barry noted that the project is not as well known to the Planning Commission, which hasn't looked at it since 2007, when the original plan was reviewed.
"I'm interested to see how (the hearing) goes," he said.
Barry said Hekemian has scaled back the original $180 million project significantly in the face of public criticism, scrapping plans for a 22-story apartment building, a hotel and an underground parking garage. Plans now call for a seven-story and a five-story building, plus several dozen townhouse-style apartments that would front Elm Avenue and 38th Street at the southern boundary of the mall.
Plans also call for closing the interior of the mall, turning its existing stores outward to face a plaza, and replacing the departed Giant supermarket with a boutique grocer.
The devil may yet be in the details, said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who supports the project in principle, but shares the objections some constituents still have about the scale of it, including the height of the tallest buildings. Clarke also was scheduled to meet with residents of Elm and 38th on Wednesday, Feb. 6 at the Rotunda, to discuss options for mitigating potential parking problems when the apartments fronting those streets are built.
Clarke said she has notified all the people on her Rotunda Neighbors list about the Planning Commission meeting and has forwarded to the commission minutes of all the meetings between Hekemian and area residents about the project, as well as the residents' stated concerns and Hekemian's responses and follow-up comments.
Clarke has opposed closing the interior of he mall and has supported landscaping and design modifications at Elm and 38th. She also thinks the scale of the project is still too large, and fought to restrict the hours of operation of a loading dock that faces Elm, because some residents were concerned about "having a loading dock staring them in the face."
Restricting the hours "seemed to satisfy most people," she said.
Clarke said she planned to attend the Planning Commission hearing, but doesn't want to be a fly in the ointment regarding a project she expects the commission to approve. At this point, any last-minute tweaking is "design-oriented" and focused on the southern perimeter of the project, she said.
But Clarke said she doesn't want to be seen as stirring up controversy as the project nears final approval.
"I'm not going to try to crank something up," she said. "There are some issues that are still unresolved. Yes, I think (the commission will) approve the project as a whole, absolutely. But just like the City Council, you can vote with amendments."
Genny Dill, whose Elm Avenue row house faces the back parking lot of the Rotunda, is leading the charge to mitigate parking problems. Hekemian officials have agreed to include one parking space per unit in the rents of the apartments at Elm and 38th, but residents don't trust future tenants to use the spaces, saying it may be too tempting to park on the street.
A community meeting was scheduled for Wednesday at the Rotunda to discuss parking mitigation options, and one of the options that was expected to be presented was to ask the city to create a Residential Parking Permit area to limit how long people can park on the street. Another option is to ask the city to build a public parking garage in the area, Dill said.
Dill wasn't planning to go to the Planning Commission hearing and said she and many other residents are tired of all the debate over a project they expect to win final approval Thursday.
"I think it's probably over but the shouting," said Dill, secretary to the Hampden Community Council and a member of Hekemian's advisory task force. "We just want to get it done."