After 15 years at the Hickory Ridge Village Center, Luna Bella Ristorante owners Celeste Gebler and Joe Iacia said they are closing their business at the end of December, in light of the village center's future redevelopment. The restaurant owners said they decided to close their doors following failed lease renegotiations with property owner Kimco Realty.
The Italian restaurant – located near the village center entrance off Quarterstaff Road – opened on Dec. 21, 2001, Gebler said, operating seven days a week. As competition rose in the surrounding area, the engaged couple agreed that the once-thriving village center has lost tenants over the years, most recently the closing of Hair Cuttery last week.
Kimco officials first presented their plans to redevelop the village center in December 2015, proposing 280 to 300 residential units in a five-story apartment building with three new retail buildings. The property owner has faced backlash from the community after sharing its first conceptual design for the center's 14.16 acres.
During several small group meetings last spring, hundreds of resident and tenant complaints sent Kimco and its architectural land-planning firm, Hord Coplan Macht, back to the drawing board to address the growing number of concerns. A second plan was introduced in September, bringing the buildings closer together and condensing apartments into 230 units inside a four-story building.
Other Kimco properties include Wilde Lake, Dorsey's Search, Harper's Choice, Kings Contrivance and River Hill village centers; and Columbia Crossing.
On Monday, Gebler said the restaurant's departure "has nothing to do with business [problems]," but rather concerns for their future after the redevelopment.
"[Kimco] won't guarantee us a spot in the new redevelopment," Gebler said. "They wouldn't give us definitive answers. The only thing they would give us was a lease through June 2018. We were told that they weren't going to begin to break ground until the spring of 2019."
On Tuesday, Greg Reed, Kimco's vice president of development, said the property owner is in direct negotiations with tenants for leasing through summer 2018.
The leases are "contingent on us having our permit and approvals from the county. A lot can happen in 18 months," Reed said. "Beyond that, it's really premature for me to go signing new deals when I don't have an approved plan."
Reed said one of the new proposed retail buildings will be completed by summer 2019 and will be used for existing tenants to temporarily relocate their businesses. Once the building by the Giant Food store is demolished by the end of 2019, Kimco will begin to build a new parking lot, more retail and the village green.
Construction on the residential building will then begin in 2020 and end by 2022, he said.
"We believe that we'll be able to build a new building to relocate the existing tenants to minimize their down time," Reed said. "I want all of our tenants to stay and come back in the redevelopment. Even if they don't want to go through a redevelopment and construction, they won't need to move until 2018."
At a Howard County Design Advisory Panel meeting in early December, panel vice chairman Don Taylor described Kimco's latest apartment proposal as "overpowering" for the corner of Cedar Lane and Freetown Road. Taylor suggested Kimco reduce the apartments to a two-story building. Panelists Fred Marino and Julie Wilson, both architects, agreed with Taylor, asking the property owner to consider the village center's character in the redesign to avoid losing its identity.
Reed said Kimco should have a response to the panel's suggestions by the end of the year and will schedule a meeting with the panel in late January or early February.
Other Hickory Ridge tenants say they're also conflicted about staying in the village center during future construction after watching Wilde Lake businesses suffer in 2013 during its village center's redevelopment.
Owner Reese Razzaque, of Feet First, said the athletic sportswear business has operated at Hickory Ridge for about eight years, moving from Wilde Lake Village Center after 30 years of business to avoid construction there. Razzaque said business was booming at Hickory Ridge in 2008, but recently foot traffic has severely diminished.
"We know that the shopping center is going to be redone and it was a nightmare for the tenants who stayed at Wilde Lake when the redevelopment was done," Razzaque said.
Reed said Wilde Lake construction "hit unknown, unforeseen issues," which caused a "big disruption." During construction, crews hit Verizon and BGE conduits in the ground and lines had to be relocated.
"We have better plans for Hickory Ridge and we think we have a better understanding," Reed said. "We do try to work with our tenants."
At Renew Instant Shoe Repair, owner Eric Lee agreed with Razzaque. As a Hickory Ridge tenant of 18 years, Lee said the construction will amount to lots of dust and little space, making the village center unappealing to customers.
"When they start the construction, how are they going to maintain everything? People have to move out," Lee said. "It's not a one- or two-year project. It could take four or five years. It'll be dusty and there will be a lot of noise."
Some tenants, like Lee, said they haven't received any information at all from Kimco regarding future lease agreements.
"If I have to move out for construction for that long, why should I come back?" Lee said. "I should just move to another place. I don't like the plan."
However, Decanter Fine Wines owner Eric Stein said the redevelopment is a must for the village center. An outspoken proponent of Kimco's redevelopment plan, Stein said he is confident his business will have a home at Hickory Ridge after Kimco's revitalization brings a larger audience to the center.
"Nobody really knows where the leases stand at this point," Stein said. "[Kimco] can't write leases until there is a confirmed development and design. Leases are very specific to location and size. With no plan that's been approved by planning and zoning, you can't write leases."
Unless the redevelopment occurs, storefronts, including Luna Bella's, will stay empty, he said.
"They're going to be empty until there's a new center because nobody's going to buy into a village center that's going to be torn down and rebuilt," Stein said. "That's an expensive proposition."
Gebler said the decision to close Luna Bella was not taken lightly, but "if you're not guaranteed your business, why worth the risk?"
"I just keep thinking to myself that when one door closes, another opens," Gebler said. "So, I'm curious to see which door is going to open for us. I got to look at it as a new adventure and take what I've learned here someplace else."