New development is revitalizing Owings Mills. (WJZ)
At the opening of the Owings Mills Mall in 1986, politicians cracked champagne bottles on the brass stair rails and pink and turquoise feathers rained down from the skylights onto a throng of shoppers below.
With a Saks Fifth Avenue department store and specialty retailers selling furs and designer clothes, the mall was celebrated as the high-end centerpiece of the emerging, affluent suburb.
Thirty years later, workers have encircled the mall with screened fences and are tearing it down.
Owings Mills Mall is now seen as a spectacular failure. Yet its demise hasn't slowed interest and retail growth in an area of the county still seen as an emerging hub. Even as tenants left the mall, developers were building the adjacent Metro Centre with office and retail space, and new apartments grew up next to the Metro station.
About a mile and a half away, the sprawling Foundry Row center on Reisterstown Road opened last month with more than 350,000 square feet of retail space, anchored by a Wegmans grocery.
Brian Gibbons, whose Owings Mills-based Greenberg Gibbons Commercial is redeveloping Foundry Row from the former Solo Cup factory, says he's "very bullish" on Owings Mills — an area with a median household income of more than $71,000, according to census data. The countywide median is $66,900.
Kimco, the New York-based owners of Owings Mills Mall, say they're high on the area, too, and are planning to build a new open-air shopping center in its place.
But they've been mum on what tenants might be included, heightening concern amid residents, county officials and others who see the mall site's fate as critical to the future of Owings Mills.
Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones recently convened a pair of community meetings over rumors a Walmart superstore might anchor Kimco's new center.
Jones, a Woodstock Democrat who represents the mall area, said residents told him loud and clear they don't want a big Walmart — especially because there are already two Walmarts in the area in centers that could suffer or close if another opens.
Walmart officials have said talk about a possible new store in Owings Mills is "speculation," and declined to comment further.
Jones said he's "not very impressed" with what Kimco has revealed so far, and has urged them to build a high-quality project.
"I want something nice," he said. "Whatever happens, we're going to live with it for the next 30 years."
Still, he said, "the important thing for me is to make sure whatever happens there, that it be successful. "Right now I'm trying to work with [Kimco] to achieve the primary objective, which is to get it developed."
A spokeswoman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said the county hopes Kimco will "aim higher than a Walmart superstore."
"The county executive has communicated directly with Kimco on many, many occasions in recent weeks and months," spokeswoman Fronda Cohen said. "He really has told them he wants them to … create a quality development for the people of Owings Mills."
The Owings Mills "fashion mall" opened to great fanfare 30 years ago, but the 1992 murder of Christina Marie Brown shook the public's confidence in the mall area.
Brown, 28, was shot to death as she walked along a path from the mall to the Metro station. Nigel Antonio Carter, then 17, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder.
The mall declined in the years that followed. High-end retailers left, to be replaced by mid-range stores.
Saks Fifth Avenue left Owings Mills in 1996, followed by Sears in 2001 and Lord & Taylor in 2002.
By September 2015, only a few stores remained. Kimco closed off the interior sections of the mall, leaving only Macy's and JC Penney open for business.
Those stores closed, too, and demolition began this year.
As far back as 2011, Kimco proposed working with then-owner General Growth Properties to "de-mall" the site and redevelop it. Kimco eventually gained sole control of the property and received preliminary approval from the county for an open-air center.
No permits have been granted, but plans filed with the county show four possible variations. All involve two main rows of shops and vast parking. One plan includes a 12-story office tower and garage; two others include a gas station. No tenants have been named.
Kimco officials have declined to answer questions, but said in a statement the company is "considering several different retail alternatives, including a new open-air power center concept that will enhance the available shopping options and compliment the surrounding community."
The company said it is "encouraged by the considerable interest we've received from potential retailers at this early stage."
Civic activists say they recognize high-end stores failed at Owings Mills Mall, but they don't think a Walmart-type store is right, either.
Mark Stewart, president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council, says he wants to see something akin to Hunt Valley Towne Centre, where Greenburg Gibbons turned a moribund mall into an outdoor center.
Stores should be nice, he said, but the mall experience proved consumers in the area won't support expensive retailers.
George Harman, a past president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council who ran for county executive in 2014, noted the demise of Owings Mills Mall is not unique. Malls around the region and across the county have closed or undergone redevelopment.
"It's really a shame to see the transitioning of all the malls," he said. But he noted that many, including Hunt Valley, have rebounded.
Harman said there's room for "middle-of-the-road" restaurants and stores such as a Lowes or a Dick's Sporting Goods.
"Mid-range is what I think Reisterstown, Randallstown and Owings Mills are looking for," he said.
Baltimore Rising, a group that promotes economic development in the region, has opposed a big-box concept at the site. The group is calling on Jones to introduce legislation limiting store size on the property that could eliminate big-box retailers.
The group's founder, Les Cohen, declined an interview request.
Rival developers see promise at the mall property, but say they worry Kimco's plan will fall short.
Gibbons, CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, said his company wanted to buy the site, but was rebuffed by Kimco. He thinks the mall property is ripe for a mix of homes, shops and offices, creating a "walkable community" linking to Metro Centre next door.
"It's very important that whatever happens to the mall is complementary, and we don't take a step back," Gibbons said.
Howard Brown, chairman of Owings Mills-based David S. Brown Enterprises, said he also tried to buy the mall property. His company is developing Metro Centre, and built a road connecting his project to the mall site.
Kimco declined to comment on whether Greenberg Gibbons and David S. Brown attempted to buy the mall.
Brown said a big-box, strip center is not what people want, and won't become the community focal point Owings Mills needs. With the explosion of online shopping, he said, customers aren't interested in browsing in giant stores. In-person shopping is moving to smaller stores, he said.
Brown said he would rather see the former mall site become mix of single- and multifamily housing centered around Main Street-type shopping, with a park or pond as a neighborhood amenity.
"The last thing it wants to be is boxes facing boxes," Brown said. "That's passé."
Brown thinks county officials should take a role in nudging Kimco to be creative, possibly with legislation guiding what can be done with the property.
"They have an opportunity now. The mall is gone," Brown said. "The county has an opportunity to create a walkable, bikeable downtown."
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.