Changes to its shopping center have Roland Park abuzz

Anita Ward says she's not closing the Roland Park Bakery and Deli — she's moving it.

But in a town as location-loyal and change-adverse as Baltimore, news that the deli would be leaving the historic Roland Park Shopping Center after 27 years has drawn reactions that run a fairly narrow gamut: from "tragic" to "terrible."

Or, rather, "terrible, terrible, terrible," in the words of Tish Brooks, lunching at the deli earlier this week with her daughter and granddaughter. "I just hate to see Roland Park institutions disappear."

History, both architectural and personal, matters here, and the iconic Tudor-style strip of shops and eateries figures in both: Built in 1896, it "pioneered the 'shopping center' concept in America," as a curbside plaque notes, and there are those who seemingly have memories of every restaurant, store and office that has been housed in it ever since.

The deli, located on a lower level from the main strip of storefronts that faces Roland Avenue, is a beloved neighborhood hangout, an everyone-knows-everyone kind of place in contrast to the shopping center's other restaurant, the newer and pricier Petit Louis bistro, which draws customers from well beyond the immediate area.

But now, the center's owners want to bring an even newer restaurant to the opposite side of the shopping center from Petit Louis. With plans to serve all three meals, the new restaurant did not want the breakfast and lunch competition from the deli, said Philip Spevak, the coordinator of the neighborhood's master plan and former president of the Roland Park Civic League. League members were given a preview of the proposed changes to the center last week.

Spevak, like others in the neighborhood, said he hopes the Roland Park Bakery and Deli will re-open elsewhere in the neighborhood. "It's a real fixture," he said. "People gather and talk and meet there."

Spevak said the changes to the shopping center are in the preliminary stages; zoning and covenant details still have to be sorted out before the plans can go forward. A proposed drive-through for the Bank of America branch in particular had raised traffic and aesthetic concerns; the shopping center owners say they've dropped that part of their plans.

"We decided it's not a viable option. We don't need the controversy," said Tricia Ward, who with her father, Jim, owns the shopping center.

She is also a niece, and her father a brother-in-law, of Anita Ward, the deli owner. "We love her, and the community loves her," Tricia Ward said, adding that her aunt is close to settling on a new location.

Tricia Ward said the distinctive exterior of the shopping center will not change, and the new restaurant coming in — which she declined to identify because the contract has not yet been signed — is part of "the natural evolution" of the commercial strip.

"We are looking at making modifications to respond to the needs of Roland Park," she said. "We had a lot of vacancies that came up at the same time."

Still, any change tends to rattle those who have long frequented the shopping center. Many remember enjoying milkshakes at Delvale's or nickel Cokes at "the Morgue," or Morgan Millard, the drugstore-turned-restaurant located where the bistro is housed.

That both are gone now, and that the deli may soon join them as yet another ghost of Roland Park past was unsettling for some.

"I'm gone all summer at the beach, I get home yesterday and find this out," bemoaned Rebeccah Neill, who stopped in yesterday after a workout at the gym. "I would come here anyway, but I wanted to see what was happening."

Neill lives in Homeland but often comes in for a quick bite or to meet her parents, who live in a nearby condo, for breakfast.

For William Whitescarver, who remembers when the streetcar ran up Roland Avenue, the shopping center is just where he's always gone. "We came after school and on weekends," said Whitescarver, a vice president at Chapin Davis Investments. "It was the precursor of the mall rats."

Whitescarver's firm has left its original offices in the shopping center for Cross Keys, and Whitescarver himself has moved to Ruxton, but he finds himself back here for lunch just about weekly. It's usually on Thursday, which, as regulars know, is the day the special is particularly tasty: fresh roasted turkey on a Kaiser roll.

While the food is fine, what many treasure about the deli is the familiarity.

"The food, I wouldn't call it a four-star dining experience, but it's good," said Dick Roszel, lunching Monday with his sister and realtor partner Merry Rogers.

"And they know you," Rogers said.

"It's like 'Cheers,'" Roszel said.

"When I come in, they say, 'What are you going to have today, Merry?' and I say, 'My usual,' and they say, 'BLT,'" Rogers said.

One day earlier this week, everyone seemed to be chewing both BLTs — a summer favorite — and the news of the deli's impending departure.

A rumor had Miss Shirley's, the popular breakfast and lunch spot with locations on Cold Spring Lane and at the Constellation headquarters downtown, as the restaurant coming into the center, sparking some grumbling over how expensive that would be as a replacement for their neighborhood deli.

In any event, the Miss Shirley's owner shot down the speculation.

"It's not me," Eddie Dopkin, who owns several other restaurants in town, told The Baltimore Sun. "I'd be interested in anything in that location, but I go to Petit Louis and there's really no parking there. You can't get into that lot."

Parking is just one of the issues to be ironed out in the shopping center's plans, Spevak said, with the current proposal coming up six spaces short of what is required for the new restaurant. The center's owners are expected to announce the name of the new place before the civic league's next meeting in October.

For now, Anita Ward continues to arrive at 4 in the morning at her current spot to start baking — in addition to breakfast pastries, she makes the Kaiser rolls and other breads, cookies and, for Thanksgiving, pies. The walls of the homey space speak to its longevity: a yellowed newspaper clipping about the deli is on one side, an apron signed by customers for its 25th anniversary is on another.

"Of course I was upset," Ward said of being told to leave. "This is my life."

Even her loyal customers say that the new restaurant is probably a good thing for the shopping center, which has had some vacancies that neighbors would like to see filled. The new restaurant is expected to move into the two northernmost storefronts in the center, vacated by an antiques store and a realty office.

Still, customers said, the changes come at the expense of something valuable to the neighborhood

"I think it's tragic for the community," said Tom Hearn, a Realtor who grew up in Roland Park and now lives in Ruxton. "It fractures the neighborhood meeting place.

"You went [to Morgan Millard] on Friday afternoon to see what was going on for the weekend," he said. "Then on Saturday morning you came here for the latest news. This was before Twitter. This [shopping center] has always been the social hub for the community."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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