Hunt Valley Mall: troubled past, uncertain future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The day of Hunt Valley Mall's grand opening, customers had to cool their heels outside for more than half an hour because a building inspector found last-minute code violations. Three-quarters of the mall's stores hadn't opened. The Baltimore County executive refused to take part in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Hunt Valley's fortunes haven't improved much since that dismal day in September 1981. A decade later, about 25 stores sit

empty, covered by plywood paneling or darkened behind security grates. Near an entrance, four empty stores stand in a row, like ghost soldiers.

"With all the bars, it looks like a jail," said shopper Kim Frederick as she ushered her children into her car one day last month. Francie Ritter, manager of the Wild Pair shoe store, gave a typical assessment of business at the mall: "It's slow. It's real slow. It's dead."

Last year was not kind to Hunt Valley. Already weak, the mall took a pounding from the recession. And it has been hemorrhaging stores for months.

The Big Sky shoe store abandoned the mall just after Christmas, and so did the Door Store. County Seat closed in September and opened a new store in Towson Town Center. Last month, the troubled Zale Corp. See MALL, 2A, Col. 1MALL, from A1suddenly closed all three of its Hunt Valley jewelry stores, Zales, Gordons and D.P. Paul, as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

But the greatest threat to Hunt Valley's future lies ahead. One of its anchors, Macy's, is in Chapter 11, and many merchants are worried that the Hunt Valley store won't survive when the chain reorganizes.

Cynics -- and there are many of them in the mall these days -- call it Death Valley. They joke that it's a great mall for people who hate malls -- no crowds, attentive service, and you can always get a parking space near the door.

But unlike some other struggling malls in the region, Hunt Valley shows no obvious signs of decay or neglect. The mall's management firm, Philadelphia-based Kravco Co., says it remains bullish on Hunt Valley. Rather than dwelling on its 15 percent vacancy rate, almost twice the 8 percent nationwide average for malls, it emphasizes that Hunt Valley is 85 percent leased. But even that number looks anemic alongside those from White Marsh, which says it is 100 percent leased, or Owings Mills, which says 97 percent of the stores are spoken for.

Kravco points to Hunt Valley's assets -- easy access off Interstate 83 at Shawan Road, ample parking and a location in the middle of an important employment center surrounded by some of the most affluent communities in Baltimore County. And, according to regional leasing director Lloyd Miller, Kravco and the mall's owner -- a partnership led by Equitable Life Assurance Society -- are laying plans for a major redevelopment of the mall.

Still, outside observers are dubious. They point to the vast areas to the north and west of the mall that have been set aside for low-density development and agricultural use. They note the stiff competition from larger malls with more prestigious anchors. And they wonder whether those who opposed the mall in the first place weren't right after all.

'A very slow opening'

Hunt Valley's problems began long before the first sale.

Baltimore County officials were never enthusiastic about the project, preferring to steer development toward White Marsh and Owings Mills, areas earmarked for growth in the county's master plan. They warned the Kravco-Equitable group that the county already had too many malls, but the developers had the land and the required zoning and were determined to push ahead.

Environmentalists feared that the mall would create runoff that would pollute the Loch Raven watershed, and residents of neighboring communities protested that it would open the door to dense development of their scenic rural valleys. They appealed to the Planning Board, which voted in 1979 to reject plans to begin construction of the mall. The board reversed itself only when a judge upheld the original zoning and ordered the members who voted against it to change their votes.

Two years later, at the time of the mall's "Grand Opening Spectacular," the wounds had not healed. When the mall opened Sept. 17, 1981, County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson, who had opposed the project, was a no-show. "How can I be hypocritical and cut the ribbon and say how great it is when I don't feel that way?" Mr. Hutchinson, now president of Maryland Economic Growth Associates, said at the time.

James D. Lucas, then Baltimore County's economic development director, was the county administration's senior representative at the mall's grand opening. In an administration that was cool to the mall, he was one of the more sympathetic officials, but even he was not impressed.

"It was a very slow opening, very poorly put together," he recalls.

Hunt Valley opened with two anchor department stores, Sears and Bamberger's, and high hopes that it would add at least two more. After 10 years, Sears is still there, Bamberger's has become Macy's, and the hopes for additional anchors are fraying.

"There are some active talks with prospective department store anchors," Kravco's Mr. Miller said last week. But previous Kravco spokesmen have said the same thing for years -- as far back as 1981.

The high-growth years of the mid-1980s brought a measure of progress to Hunt Valley as nearby executive parks filled in and a brisk lunchtime trade came to the food court. But in July 1986, the Rouse Co. opened Owings Mills Town Center with three anchor stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue.

"Before Owings Mills opened up, the center worked fairly well," said Rene Daniel, a shopping center consultant who has done work at Hunt Valley and now acts as leasing agent for Towson Town Center. Now, he said, Hunt Valley is "geographically between the devil and the deep blue sea."

What could be an even more devastating blow hit Hunt Valley in October, when the Hahn Co. reopened its opulently remodeled Towson Town Center, a visual tour de force with architecture as bold as Hunt Valley's is conventional.

Strong competition wasn't the only factor working against Hunt Valley, however. While the Owings Mills and White Marsh areas were undergoing heavy residential development, Hunt Valley was still hemmed in by Baltimore County's "urban-rural demarcation line," adopted in the late 1970s as part of the county's master plan.

Some former officials suspect that the developers might have underestimated the county's determination to maintain the rural character of those areas. "They may have thought the whole thing would break open and that there would be residential development all the way up to the Pennsylvania line," said Dale Balfour, a member of the county Planning Board during the controversy over building the mall.

Many shoppers and people in the retail business think Hunt Valley's problems run deeper than geography. They point to the mix of stores, which leans heavily toward such ubiquitous mall stores as The Limited, Merry-Go-Round and Casual Corner. Others think the mall's odd-couple anchors, Sears and Macy's, leave consumers confused over whether Hunt Valley is trying to be a discount mall or aim at affluent shoppers.

The mall today

Walk through Hunt Valley Mall on a winter morning before lunchtime and you will find it as quiet as a library -- or a mausoleum.

In store after store, sales people tally figures or read magazines without the distraction of serving customers. It's a slow time of day, and a slow time of year, but merchants insist this is the way business goes at Hunt Valley most of the time.

"Compared with the mall I was at, it's very, very slow," said Heather King, assistant manager of Chess King, a men's clothing store. Weekends and evenings aren't much better, other merchants say.

There are merchants who say their Hunt Valley locations are doing well for them, particularly providers of services such as haircuts, custom framing and tuxedo rental. "We do great," said Derek Wright, assistant manager of Small's Formal Wear, but he pointed out that his store does not depend on the impulse buying that comes from steady mall traffic.

But merchants who do depend on a constant flow of people through the mall say business is hurting.

Harry Herman Jr., general manager of Herman's Bakery, said his Hunt Valley location does a good trade in specially decorated cakes for business customers in the offices surrounding the mall. "Where we fall down is the casual shopping customer," he said. "That's where Hunt Valley doesn't come up to snuff."

Herman's, which operates bakeries at four Baltimore-area malls, has been at Hunt Valley for 10 1/2 years, but Mr. Herman said it's "very borderline" whether it will remain much longer.

Can the center hold?

Today, most of the rumors swirling around Hunt Valley concern Macy's, the prestigious department store whose debt-ridden parent company filed for Chapter 11 last month after a disappointing holiday season.

The merchants are concerned, and they have good reason. Retailers in Chapter 11 typically take a good, hard look at all their stores and draw up a reorganization plan that weeds out the weak performers.

"I would expect that Macy's would take a similar look at its stores," said Jeffrey Branman, managing director of Financo Inc., a bankruptcy specialist, adding that "the creditors will have some say" in the process.

Macy's will not discuss the performance of any particular store, but spokesman Jim Fingeroth acknowledged that "clearly, in the Chapter 11 process, a company will be re-examining all its options." He said, however, that it's "premature to speculate about any particular Macy's."

Mr. Miller of Kravco said Macy's "has given us no indications we have any concern," adding that the management company isn't worried that the department store will disappear.

But outside observers aren't so sanguine about the Macy's store.

"I can't believe it's terribly profitable," said Mr. Daniel. He added that the opening of Nordstrom's department store at Towson Town Center in September would put additional pressure on the Hunt Valley store.

The specter of a possible Macy's closing scares the wits out of the smaller tenants at Hunt Valley, many of whom doubt their stores could survive in a center with only one anchor. "If Macy's goes and no other anchor store comes in, the mall dies," said Chris Baugher, a supervisor at the Chesapeake Knife and Tool store.

Even assuming Macy's stays, merchants at Hunt Valley say the center needs some kind of boost -- and fast. Some of them look to the proposed extension of the new light rail line to Hunt Valley as a possible stimulant to business.

"The only prospect for growth in that area is related to the light rail initiative," said Mr. Lucas, the former county economic development director.

But Kathy Schlabach, a county planner who has been conducting a comprehensive study of the Hunt Valley-Timonium area, said the mall's managers have been puzzlingly cool to the idea.

"They seem to be very reluctant to have the light rail go to the mall itself," she said. "They're afraid of people using their parking lot to take the train."

Kravco's Mr. Miller declined to comment on the issue, saying it was "moot" because the state doesn't have the money to extend the light line at this time.

Mr. Miller said Kravco and the mall's owner are still hopeful about Hunt Valley's future, and he pointed to a number of merchants that have opened new stores or expanded existing footage in recent months. He cited The Limited's Compagnie Internationale and Structures stores, as well as Sam Goody, Video Concepts, Boardwalk Fries and Jewelry, Watches & More.

Theresa Rigley, owner of Nutkracker Sweet, said she decided to stay and renovate the nut and candy shop because business is good and she didn't want to leave her "loyal customers." She added that the rent was reasonable compared with some of the newer malls.

Sometime in the next two years, Mr. Miller expects that Hunt Valley will undergo a face lift that will add a multi-screen movie theater and refurbish the interior. He said the renovation will involve a change in retail strategy and will bring in new stores and change existing storefronts.

While Mr. Miller said he couldn't provide specifics about the mall's new strategy until late spring, he hinted that it will be a transformation on the order of the dramatic renovation at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, which has added a Nordstrom's store and gone from a retail backwater to one of the hottest shopping centers in Maryland.

But there are some who doubt whether any face lift can overcome Hunt Valley's geographical liabilities.

"I think it's a wonderful piece of real estate," said Mr. Daniel. "I don't think it's a wonderful piece of real estate for a regional mall."

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