Sibgha “Saba” Altaf said customers used to come from all over Maryland as well as Pennsylvania and New Jersey for her to do their eyebrows at The Gallery at Harborplace mall in downtown Baltimore.
But foot traffic at the Inner Harbor mall slowed considerably when the food court closed in 2015, said Altaf, the owner and sole employee of Organic Eye Brow Threading. It dwindled even more once the COVID-19 pandemic sent many workers home for more than a year.
In what would be the latest loss for Baltimore’s brick-and-mortar retailers and its once-bustling downtown, Altaf said she and the other retail tenants at the Gallery have been told they must vacate the Baltimore mall at the end of the year as the owner reconsiders its plans for the building.
“This mall should not be closed,” said Altaf, who lives in Dundalk. “The people just love this mall. It’s in the center of the city. I don’t know why they’re closing it.”
Brookfield Properties, the mall owner, declined to answer questions about its plans for the multilevel retail portion of the 30-story building at Pratt and Calvert streets. It also includes 265,000 square feet of office space, the 680-room Renaissance Hotel and a five-level underground parking garage.
“We are currently evaluating several potential options to reposition the Gallery that will meet the needs of the market,” said Brookfield spokeswoman Laura Montross in an email. “We will keep you informed on updates as we are able.”
Mayor Brandon Scott promised to collaborate with the mall owner on major upgrades to the building, which once served as one of downtown’s attractions alongside Harborplace and the National Aquarium nearby.
“The city will continue to work with Brookfield as they consider options for significant improvements and investment in the Gallery to meet the needs of the market,” said Stefanie Mavronis, a spokeswoman for the Democratic mayor.
Employees boxed up the remaining inventory Wednesday inside the mall’s second-floor DTLR, where a “STORE CLOSED!” sign in the front window referred customers to another location at Lexington Square. Aside from Organic Eye Brow Threading, the remaining tenants also include Spaces, Pandora, Forever 21, Foot Locker and Bath & Body Works.
Luis Medina, owner of LAMESA, a clothing outlet in the mall, received repeated extensions of his lease, first through July, then September, then the end of the year. But now he has to be out by January.
“I need the place to do the business, so I couldn’t say no,” he said.
Altaf and Medina both said they’re planning to search in Baltimore for new locations to reopen their businesses in 2022. But neither knows what’s planned for the building they’re leaving.
“They did not say any specific information to anyone about what they’re trying to do,” said Medina, who also spoke to WJZ, which first reported the story.
During a visit Wednesday to the mall Wednesday, Tameeka Bush’s daughter, Athena, delighted in dipping her hands into the mall fountains. Bush, who lives in Northeast Baltimore, said they haven’t visited The Gallery as frequently in recent years. But she has fond memories of it crowded with downtown workers and visitors heading to eat or shop.
“It was such a central spot,” Bush said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Dierra Footman, a 29-year-old network engineer, works at a shared Spaces workspace in what used to be the mall’s food court. She has watched what she calls the mall’s “slow decline” over the past decade or so.
“The Gallery was the place when you needed to pick up something real quick,” she said. “It’s pretty sad.”
The Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business advocacy group, is among the tenants in the building’s upstairs offices. GBC President Don Fry said he has noticed improvements in the office areas of the building, including an ongoing renovation of the lobby and a common gathering area upstairs.
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“I’ve seen significant activity of people, potential tenants going through the building and meeting with people, so there seems to be a lot of activity and interest still in this complex,” Fry said.
While Fry said he didn’t have any details on Brookfield’s plans, he noted the devastating effects of the pandemic and e-commerce on retailers large and small.
“It’s not uncommon that we see companies that own large retail establishments like The Gallery are looking to determine what adjustments, if any, are needed to address the current demand,” he said. “We’ve seen offices close or people working from home. We’ve seen hotel occupancy low, so foot traffic has been considerably less. And of course with people adjusting and shifting to online shopping, that certainly impacts the retail operations at any location.”
The financial woes of Harborplace, which has been in court-appointed receivership since 2019, when its New York-based owner defaulted on its loan for the property, “haven’t helped,” Fry said.
“The Gallery has been largely seen as an extension of Harborplace, and Harborplace has certainly struggled,” he said. “But I’m still optimistic that this is a prime location.”
A pair of tourists, surveying the now-closed H&M and several other vacant storefronts at The Gallery, asked where else they could go nearby to shop.
“Around here?” replied a security guard, at a loss. “Google it.”