Shabir Malik is still waiting for "the good times" to return to the Rotunda.
Malik, a restaurateur, said he and fellow merchants have held out hope for the long-delayed redevelopment of the half-empty shopping center in the Roland Park area. But their pessimism deepened after Giant Food announced it will close its Rotunda store, leaving the mall with only a Rite-Aid for a retail anchor.
"They don't talk about [the redevelopment plan] anymore," said Malik, owner of Casa Mia's, the lone eatery in the 929,000-square-foot center. He predicted that the departure of Giant — which once planned to build a larger, state-of-the-art store in the rear parking lot — "will be bad for the whole building."
But the mall's New Jersey-based owner, Hekemian & Co., said Giant's move actually may prove beneficial, by allowing new plans to be drawn up.
"We've been waiting for two years for Giant to decide what they wanted to do," said Chris Bell, Hekemian's vice president of acquisitions and development. "We are delighted they made a decision."
Hekemian still plans a mix of apartments and retail as part of the redevelopment, and wants to replace the Giant with a "boutique" grocery store such as Trader Joe's. Although there is no start date or timetable for the project, he said, "We are going to push forward with this redevelopment as fast as we can."
Hekemian should be able to attract a new grocery store because of the center's location straddling Roland Park and Hampden, commercial real estate experts said. The more than 110,000 people who live in the center's immediate trade area have an average household income of $98,000, according to Hekemian.
"I don't think there is any issue about the need for an additional grocery store within that trade area," said Thomas H. Maddux, a principal with Towson-based KLNB Retail. Bringing in a new grocery store, and apartments eventually, should help lure additional retailers.
"I'm sure [the developer] is disappointed they can't move forward with the original plan, but many, many projects aren't moving forward as originally conceived," he said. "That doesn't mean there is anything fundamentally wrong with it."
An additional vacancy at the Rotunda could end up working to the developer's advantage, offering additional flexibility when it comes to redesigning the layout of tenant locations, said Geoffrey L. Mackler, a principal at real estate brokerage H&R Retail.
"Layout is what's really important as far as getting retailers interested in the project," Mackler said. Retailers that are expanding often pursue urban core areas, so a project such as the Rotunda fits with their strategic plan, he said.
Though the list of potential grocery stores may be limited, the Rotunda will likely be an attractive site, Mackler said.
"It's well-positioned," he said of the Rotunda, in the 700 block of W. 40th St.. "It's in a great market in Baltimore, densely populated with good income and education."
Bell said Hekemian and Giant negotiated an agreement last week that allows the supermarket to end its long-term lease, and the developer to bring in a smaller grocer that won't compete with Giant at its new location in the Greenspring Tower Shopping Center.
Giant has purchased the Fresh & Green's store less than a half-mile away, and plans to relocate after six to eight weeks of renovation, leaving a 33,000-square-foot-vacancy at the Rotunda's front entrance.
According to terms of the agreement between Giant and Hekemian, the replacement store at the Rotunda can be no larger than 20,000 square feet, Bell said.
Landover-based Giant Food's spokesman Jamie Miller said the grocer's departure could "expedite" the redevelopment of the Rotunda.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose 14th District includes the mall, said that in the next six weeks Bell wants to reconvene an advisory group of community leaders that once met regularly to give Hekemian input on the Rotunda's redevelopment.
"It sounds as if they're ready to roll" on redevelopment, Clarke said Monday. "There's no more strings tying them down."
She believes the community 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."
There are signs of progress at the Rotunda, which was built in the 1920s for Maryland Casualty Insurance Co. and partially converted to a shopping center in 1971.
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.
Rotunda merchants are also encouraged that Johns Hopkins University bought the former Zurich office building next to the mall and 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 university spokesman Dennis O'Shea.
"We certainly would love for there to be amenities for our employees," he said. "By having a substantial employee base [nearby], we certainly add to the attractiveness of the space."
But Rotunda merchant Sheldon Pearlman remains skeptical about a major redevelopment.
"My gut feeling is there is no redevelopment [coming], even though they swear it is," said Pearlman, owner of Amazing Spiral (formerly Comics Kingdom) in the mall.
Chatting behind the Casa Mia's counter the day before Giant's announcement, Malik, a 64-year-old native of Pakistan, was thinking less about redevelopment than about an increase in outside competition. 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 Rotunda for more than 11 years, is critical of 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 about the criticism.
Some merchants said that the mall's mix of retail and office space, including a Christian Science Reading Room with limited hours, and a Social Security Administration office, does not generate many customers.
But Pearlman said moviegoers stop in his store, and so do people going to doctor's appointments. "It definitely attracts business," Pearlman said.
Giant is not the first major tenant to leave the mall. Stores that have left in the past decade include Tomlinson, Rotunda Liquors and Bank of America. Most of the spaces are still empty.
"It would be really nice if they got a bank back," Pearlman said. "Losing Bank of America hurt."
But merchants can take heart in longtime customers such as Rosetta Miller, who ate a late lunch last week 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.
Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.