Rotunda owner stands firm despite redevelopment criticism

Rotunda owner Hekemian & Co. doesn't think it needs to go back to the drawing board in the wake of criticism by Baltimore City officials of redevelopment plans for the struggling mall.

"We've looked at dozens of scenarios over the years on how to lay out the site and this is the best (plan) we found," said Chris Bell, a senior vice president for Hekemian.

But Bell said he wants to "sit down" with people like City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who complained at a city urban design panel meeting last week that developers make no provision for an interior mall in their plans.

"We were a bit surprised to hear" the complaint, Bell said July 23. "We'll sit down and talk with Mary Pat, since most of those comments were made by her," Bell said.

Clarke, who was in the audience during a July 19 meeting of the Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel, said she was surprised to learn that Hekemian wants to close most of the inside of the mall after turning stores so that they face out onto a planned plaza.

As a practical matter, there would be no place for the seniors who live nearby, including Roland Park Place across the street, to go in inclement weather, Clarke said.

But beyond that, Hekemian would be fundamentally changing the nature of the longtime mall in the 700 block of West 40th Street in Hampden, Clarke said

"It wouldn't be a mall. It would be a Belvedere Square, I guess," she said, referring to the outdoor shopping center at York Road and Belvedere Avenue.

Clarke was not alone in her concern. Panelist Jay Brodie was adamant that the interior not be closed to the public.

"I think it is a requirement," said Brodie, retiring president of theBaltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development agency.

"There will always be those elderly people," Brodie said.

But Bell and Al Barry, a local land use consultant to New Jersey-based Hekemian, said that turning stores outward in place of an interior mall was always part of Hekemian's plans.

"It has not been hidden from people," Barry said. "That has been our concept and proposal from day one, gong back seven years. This is the first that I've heard that comment."

"We've obviously been working with Mary Pat for six years and this is the first time this has come up," Bell said.

Barry said the mall has struggled partly because stores were accessible only from inside and the mall was something of a maze with bad circulation.

And Bell said retailers hate back entrances to their stores, because it leads to thefts of merchandise, as has happened with the Rite Aid drugstore in the Rotunda, which has front and back entrances.

Bell also said the Rotunda is too small to be a typical mall.

""We could do an interior mall and we would never lease one space," he said. "Retailers will not take that space, unless it's a real mall."

But Bell and Barry said they thought the plan could be tweaked to include a place inside where people could get coffee, possibly near the Rotunda Cinemas movie theaters, the only part of the interior space that would be open to shoppers under the current redevelopment plans..

At least one community leader said she was not upset that the interior would be closed — and she was surprised that Clarke and Brodie didn't know that the interior mall would be phased out.

"I'm not sure why the (panelists) were surprised by the rearranging of the retail," said Genny Dill, secretary to the Hampden Community Council and a resident of Elm Avenue alongside the mall.

"That was in the original plan, too," she said in an email. "It shows you who was paying attention."

Barry and Bell also took issue with panelist Rich Burns' suggestion that Hekemian create more public space on the redevelopment site, where additional retail, apartments and two garages are planned. That would truncate the amount of retail Hekemian wants, they said..

"We need the retail to be as viable as possible," Barry said.

Dill said she and her neighbors, who met privately with Hekemian officials July 17, are more concerned about parking, traffic, buffers for docks and building service areas, landscaping, security, and construction schedules and staging.

But she also said, "The developer has opened the line of communication, has already agreed to support us with some requests we will be making to the city, is working with us on some of the concerns now, and there will be additional upcoming meetings scheduled soon to keep us on track and up to date as the project changes in the city's hands (it always does to some degree)."

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