After years of impasse, a behind-the-scenes deal between Giant Food and Rotunda owner Hekemian & Co. could make long-awaited redevelopment of the mall in Hampden a reality.
In an agreement inked last week, New Jersey-based Hekemian agreed to let Giant out of its long-term lease in the Rotunda, so that Giant could relocate its undersized, 41-year-old store to the former Fresh & Green's, a larger space in the Greenspring Tower Shopping Center, a quarter-mile away.
In exchange, Giant agreed to let Hekemian replace the Giant store with a smaller "boutique" grocer of no more than 20,000 square feet in the Rotunda, so as not to compete with Giant in its new digs, said Chris Bell, senior vice president for acquisitions and development at Hekemian.
He cited Trader Joe's as an example of the kind of boutique grocer that he said would be "a nice fit" in the mall.
Now, Hekemian is getting ready to reconvene a long-dormant advisory group of community leaders that used to meet regularly to give Hekemian officials input on the mall's redevelopment before the project stalled, said Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose 14th District includes the mall.
Clarke said Feb. 6 that Bell told her the advisory group is expected to start meeting again in about six weeks.
"It sounds as if they're ready to roll" on redevelopment, Clarke said. "There's no more strings tying them down."
The deal kills one key aspect of Hekemian's redevelopment plan, which called for Giant to close the 33,000-square-foot Rotunda store and build a 73,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art store in the Rotunda's back parking lot.
But Bell said the deal also unties Hekemian's hands.
"We've been waiting for two years for Giant to decide what they wanted to do," Bell said. "We are delighted they made a decision."
Hekemian still plans to do a mix of apartments and retail as part of redevelopment, but has no start date or timetable, he said.
"We are going to push forward with this redevelopment as fast as we can," Bell said.
Landover-based Giant Food's spokesman Jamie Miller said the grocer's departure could "expedite" the redevelopment of the Rotunda.
Clarke said she thinks surrounding communities would be happy with a smaller grocery store and a scaled-back redevelopment plan for the mall, "as long as it's crammed with features that we want and enjoy and need."
Giant now will remodel the 47,000-square-foot Fresh & Green's, 1020 West 41st St., and reopen it as a Giant in about six to eight weeks, Miller said. Then, the Giant in the Rotunda, one of the oldest and smallest in the region, will close, Miller said.
Giant purchased the Hampden and Parkville Fresh & Green's stores last week, ending weeks of speculation about why the Hampden Fresh & Green's suddenly had bare meat cases and no produce. Store managers said they had no word from Fresh & Green's Toronto-based management about what was going.
Nick Hyson, manager of the Rotunda Giant, said he will manage the new store. Employees of the Fresh & Green's are expected to be kept on, Giant and Hekemian officials said.
Waiting for Godot?
Meanwhile, many merchants in the Rotunda are weary of waiting for redevelopment and said they'll believe it when they see it.
"They don't talk about it anymore," said Shabir Malik, owner of Casa Mia's, the lone eatery in the 929,000-square-foot mall
Merchants are also tired of watching stores and businesses close all around them in recent years, from The Tomlinson Craft Collection and The Bead, a women's clothing store, to Rotunda Liquors and Bank of America, which was one of three anchors of the mall, along with Giant and Rite-Aid.
Now, Giant is leaving.
"It will be bad for the whole building," Malik said.
"My gut feeling is there is no redevelopment (coming), even though they swear it is," said merchant Sheldon Pearlman, owner of Amazing Spiral (formerly Comics Kingdom).
Pearlman would be happy just to see a bank in the mall.
"It would be really nice if they got a bank back," Pearlman said. "Losing Bank of America hurt."
Merchants are more encouraged about Johns Hopkins University buying the old Zurich office building next door than they are about redevelopment. Hopkins is moving in about 1,125 employees, who may bring much-needed foot traffic to the mall.
Hopkins bought the Zurich building with the convenience of the mall in mind, said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea.
"We certainly would love for there to be amenities for our employees," he added. "By having a substantial employee base (nearby), we certainly add to the attractiveness of the space."
There was speculation last week that Hopkins might take over the Giant space, but Hopkins spokeswoman Tracey Reeves said that's untrue.
Several merchants, who requested anonymity, took issue with the mall's mix of retail and office space, including a Christian Science Reading Room with limited hours and a Social Security Administration office.
The mall needs diversification, not expansion of the movie theater into an existing retail space, to attract foot traffic, these merchants said.
But Pearlman said moviegoers stop in his store, and so do people going to doctor's appointments.
"It definitely attracts business," Pearlman said.
Rite-Aid's grand reopening
Despite uncertainty about its plans, the Rotunda carries on.
Red banners last week announced the "grand reopening" of the longtime Rite-Aid, which was recently remodeled.
Ira Miller, who took over the twin-screen Rotunda Cinemas in 2010, has since added a third screen, and said he will add a fourth in the old Tomlinson Craft Collection space.
City Bible Church meets Sunday mornings in the theater.
The Bead has been replaced by Bombay Cosmos, a boutique women's fashion store.
Casa Mia's is well-positioned opposite the theater, and draws a steady stream of customers.
Chatting behind the counter the day before Giant's announcement, Malik, a 64-year-old native of Pakistan, was thinking less about redevelopment or the mall's retail mix than he was about an increase in outside competition for Casa Mia's — a few feet outside, where a gourmet burger truck, Kooper's Chowhound, sits near the Rotunda's back entrance several days a week.
Malik, whose eatery has been in the mall for more than 11 years, is critical of mall management for allowing mobile food vendors to sell in the parking lot, where he says they take business from him.
"We hung out waiting for the good times," said Malik, "and then this happens."
Rotunda property manager David Bouchard could not be reached for comment.
But merchants worried about the Rotunda's health can take heart in longtime customers such as Rosetta Miller, of Hampden, who ate a late lunch Thursday at Casa Mia's after buying pants and hats in the mall.
The Hampden resident, 65, who doesn't drive, said the mall has been a one-stop center for all her shopping and medical needs.
"And this is the best place to eat," she said.