Rotunda redevelopment plans criticized by city panel

Ira Miller stands outside the Rotunda Cinemas in 2010. He has added a fourth screen, is adding a coffee shop and wants to open an arcade, too.
Ira Miller stands outside the Rotunda Cinemas in 2010. He has added a fourth screen, is adding a coffee shop and wants to open an arcade, too. (Photo by Gabe Dinsmoor, Baltimore Sun)

Officials criticized new plans for the redevelopment of North Baltimore's Rotunda mall on Thursday, questioning whether turning the landmark shopping center inside out — making stores accessible only from outdoor sidewalks — would best serve residents of the surrounding communities.

New Jersey-based developer Hekemian & Co. has tried for more than five years to revitalize the 11-acre Rotunda site, but Thursday's presentation was the first time that details of the $100 million rehabilitation plan had been shown to a citywide group.

The mall, topped by offices and surrounded by a large surface parking lot, served as a shopping hub for some of the city's most desirable neighborhoods, including Roland Park, before its retail tenants began leaving.

The new plan calls for the construction of two residential towers and townhouse-style residences, a doubling of the existing retail space, and the "inside-out" transformation of the mall's covered shopping center.

It was this last element that drew criticism from officials.

"The idea of interior [shopping] there is what has made it appealing to neighbors," said Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke after the developer's presentation to the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel.

Many residential buildings near the shopping center are occupied by older people, who might prefer to visit shops with indoor access so they're not exposed to the elements, Clarke said.

"I think it is a requirement" that the stores be accessible from the inside of the building, as they are now, said panel member M.J. "Jay" Brodie, who heads the Baltimore Development Corp.

"And I don't say that lightly," he added.

Brodie and other members of the panel also asked the developer and architect, Baltimore-based Design Collective Inc., to consider augmenting the site's green space and making it more accessible to pedestrians.

The design would more than double the current retail space from 65,000 to 150,000 square feet. Retail outlets are envisioned on the ground level of two residential towers planned for West 38th Street.

Asked by the panel to consider revisions to its plans, the developer said the proposal was preliminary and open to adjustment.

Not everyone was pleased with the city design panel's critique.

"The plan that turns the Rotunda building inside out has been a feature since Day One," said Al Barry, a local land-use consultant to Hekemian & Co.

Barry has been party to discussions about the Rotunda renovation since community meetings began in 2006.

Genny Dill, secretary to the Hampden Community Council and a resident of the 3800 block of Elm Avenue, said, "I'm not sure why the UDARP folks were surprised by the rearranging of the retail. That was in the original plan."

The seniors in Roland Park Place, a retirement community across West 40th Street from the mall, don't care whether store entrances are inside or outside — they're just looking forward to more retail options, said Teresa D. Snyder, president of the building's administration.

Anita Kramer, an urban retail expert at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, said area residents would benefit from an "inside-out" Rotunda.

"All in all, I think they're going to get better retail … more variety of stores and maybe stronger stores" by converting the Rotunda into a sidewalk-focused shopping center, she said.

In the past two decades, the conversion of covered malls to open-air shopping centers has become more common, Kramer said, adding that shoppers appreciate shopping areas that are walkable and connected to their surroundings.

"The street front … has just gained a tremendous amount of support and success," she said.

Thomas Maddux, a retail real estate broker for KLNB Inc. in Towson, said a renovated Rotunda would be an easy sell to prospective tenants, mainly because the area is underserved.

Plus, he said, covered malls can be more expensive for tenants because of the added cost of heating, cooling and maintaining common space.

In the redevelopment plan, there is some interior space for the public connected to the lobby of the Rotunda Cinemas, which will remain after the renovation.

But accommodating loading and unloading access for a planned 20,000-square-foot grocery store limits the flexibility of the interior space and could make it difficult to add interior access to stores, said Chris Bell, a senior vice president at Hekemian.

Bell said he intends to meet with Clarke and others in coming weeks to discuss adjustments to the plans before the next presentation to the panel.

That presentation has not yet been scheduled but is likely to take place in August. The panel's recommendations are advisory. The city's Planning Commission has the final say on a project's design.

The original proposal for a renovated Rotunda was approved five years ago. The scaled-down version presented Thursday reduces the height of two proposed residential towers. One has been reduced from 22 stories to seven; the other was cut back from 10 floors to five.

Plans call for 375 apartment units in the two residential towers and in smaller townhouse-style buildings along West 38th Street and Elm Avenue. More than 1,000 parking spaces are also planned, in an above-ground parking structure, a smaller underground lot and a surface lot near the Rotunda building.

No new office space is planned. The space allocated to offices on the upper floors of the Rotunda building will remain the same, said Ryan Kautz, an architect with Design Collective who presented the architectural plans to the panel.

The development team hopes to request construction bids early next year and to break ground on the project in April or May, said Eric Wohnsigl, the project's manager at Design Collective.

Construction will take place in phases, beginning with the parking garage, he said. From there, the entire project should be complete within 30 months — by late 2015, Wohnsigl said.

Following the Rotunda developer's presentation, the design panel heard from the team that is converting a former oil terminal south of Brewers Hill into a shopping center.

The panel approved architectural plans for the first phase of Canton Crossing center, which will be anchored by a grocery store and discount department chain — reportedly a Harris Teeter and a Target.

In addition to 320,000 square feet of retail space that the developer said was already 90 percent leased, the developers are planning to construct a community plaza and a bike-share terminal. Also, more than 300 trees are to be planted on the site, the developers said.

Patuxent Publishing reporter Larry Perl contributed to this article.