Jacqueline Caldwell, president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council, talks about efforts to sustain progress around Mondawmin Mall (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)
Two-and-a-half years after protesters and police clashed outside Mondawmin Mall, there's a development spurt in the surrounding West Baltimore neighborhoods.
Dozens of apartments are under construction, businesses and nonprofits have moved in, and home sales are on the rise.
But efforts to move past the area's image as the flash point for the rioting after Freddie Gray's death from injuries sustained in police custody in 2015 suffered a setback this week when Target announced it will close the mall's anchor store. The closing takes away a destination that drew people to the mall and served residents.
Despite the blow, developers, lawmakers and community organizers say they are committed to sustaining the area's progress.
"This is not the end for West Baltimore," said Baltimore City Councilman Leon Pinkett, who represents the area. "West Baltimore's future is not so tenuous it can be determined by a decision made in a corporate office in Minneapolis."
Located along Gwynns Falls Parkway, between Druid Hill Park and Coppin State University, Mondawmin has long struggled with vacant homes, blight and crime. But the area had been making progress, thanks to low property costs, access to public transit and proximity to academic anchor institutions.
The rioting brought fresh attention to the area, as developers, businesses and charities flocked to West Baltimore to help address problems that community organizers like Jacqueline Caldwell had been trying to fix for years.
"The floodgate opened of people who wanted to talk" about investing in the neighborhood and its people, said Caldwell, president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council.
Caldwell has lived in the area for 50 years — she bought a home not far from where she grew up — and is among Mondawmin's biggest advocates. She's fought for years to attract the type of development that is now coming to the area in multi-million dollar projects, and is confident the neighborhood can weather Target's closure.
"I know something good is going to come because something better always does," she said.
Among the new projects springing up is Metro Heights, a 70-unit apartment building across from the mall and metro station that will open next summer.
Target will close its store in Mondawmin Mall in February. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)
"I was very distressed after the uprising, with the very bad press Mondawmin got," said Chickie Grayson, CEO of Enterprise Homes, which is developing Metro Heights. "I know it to be a better community than it was made out to be, and I thought it would be really helpful to see if we could find a great place for development in that community."
Nearby at the corner of Elgin Avenue and North Monroe Street, all but eight of the 73 apartments at New Shiloh Village Apartments will be reserved for low-income renters when the building opens next July. Bon Secours Baltimore Health System and partners New Shiloh Baptist Church, Whiting Turner and Hord Coplan Macht pursued the project after seeing how quickly a similar development for seniors filled up, said George Kleb, executive director of housing and community development for Bon Secours.
In nearby Coppin Heights, Annapolis-based developer Osprey Property Co., Coppin Heights Community Development Corp. and Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore recently broke ground on a project that will turn a 5-acre former lumber yard on North Avenue near Coppin State University into a mix of market-rate and affordable housing plus commercial space. The first phase of the project, a $20 million building with 67 mixed-income apartments and retail space, is planned to open in summer of 2019.
As the number of vacant properties decline and home buyers see more development moving into the area, home sales in Mondawmin are outpacing the city average, said Annie Milli, executive director of Live Baltimore, which promotes home ownership in the city.
Home sales in Mondawmin from January through September have nearly tripled to 20 homes, compared to seven sales during the first nine months of last year, according to Live Baltimore, which promotes home ownership in the city.
Tight inventory in popular neighborhoods has pushed buyers into new neighborhoods, but, Milli said, "no matter how you slice it, there's something happening in Mondawmin."
Developers vowed to continue pressing forward.
Dan Ellis, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services said the Target was among the area's assets and its closure is a setback, but not one that will derail development in the area.
"When you put them together and start stacking them up," Ellis said of the projects in the area, "that's when you start to build momentum."
Grayson echoed Ellis' remarks, adding that she's optimistic the ongoing development will make the Target space appealing for a new retailer.
Target's decision to close the Mondawmin Mall store in February is especially frustrating because of how much progress the community is making, said William H. Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp.
"There's a lot of good activity going on up there," Cole said. "As frustrating as it is, my focus is now on filling that space as quickly as possible."
The store is one of several Target will close Feb. 3 due to years of underperformance, a decision the company did not make lightly, a spokeswoman said. About 135 people work at the store, and all eligible employees will be offered jobs at other locations.
What happens with the vacated site will impact future development and growth.
The store, which opened in 2008, anchored a $70 million redevelopment of the mall. The mall's owner, GGP, still must pay back $10.6 million on the $17 million in tax-increment-financing bonds the city issued to support the revitalization, said Baltimore treasury chief Stephen M. Kraus. He said he does not expect the company to have trouble continuing to make payments.
Earlier this week, GGP said in a statement it was too early to speculate what impact Target's closure would have on the mall, saying its stores would continue to meet the community's needs.
GGP did not respond to other questions.
Target owns its building and plans to sell it. Cole said he is working with the retailer to ensure the site is not vacant any longer than necessary.
"The last thing we want to see is an empty retail space," he said. "It doesn't help anybody. It doesn't help the community. It doesn't help GGP."
Brick-and-mortar retail closures are on the rise in response to mounting competition from Amazon and online sales, which means filling Target's void with another large retailer may be tough, said Karyl Leggio, a finance professor at Loyola University Maryland.
Sears, Macy's and JCPenney also have announced store closures in recent months. Retailers, including Target, are opting for smaller footprints, to better balance operating costs with lower sales.
"We just have to think differently about what anchors our community," Leggio said. "You lament losing a store like Target, but on the other hand, we now have this large space that could be something that benefits the community."
Recreational amenities, such as paintball and skating rinks have taken the place of former department stores in some malls, Leggio said.
Following Target's announcement Tuesday evening, Mayor Catherine Pugh tossed out a bowling alley or movie theater as ideas for the space.
Mondawmin already has some unconventional tenants, namely TouchPoint Baltimore, a community resource center backed by Baltimore Gas & Electric and Whiting Turner that opened earlier this year. It works with nonprofits to offer services such as job training, a chess program for youth and a rotating lineup of guest speakers who address local students.
The Rev. Franklin Lance, of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church on Reisterstown Road, said the work TouchPoint is doing is necessary to supplement the physical improvements developers are bringing to the neighborhood.
Together they're sending youth and adults a message that they've long waited to hear: "There are people who believe in your future and see your future," Lance said, "and want you to gravitate toward it."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this story.