As Maryland and Baltimore County prepare to spend millions to build and decorate a northern gateway into Towson, they face a four-story roadblock: "The Wall."
That's what local merchants call the massive, white-brick former Hutzler's building, which looms over the intersection of Dulaney Valley, York and Joppa roads. The behemoth splits Towson in two, cutting off Towson Town Center from downtown stores and casting a long shadow over the town's recent upsurge.
During the day, vagrants lounge on benches in front of the empty store, which closed in 1990. After dark, crowds of noisy teen-agers gather, intimidating some pedestrians.
"The whole building makes the area look depressed," said Kazem Ghassemieh, owner of Kazem Importers of Fine Persian Rugs, whose shop looks out on the department store's blank wall.
And with Towson poised for a two-year improvement program to beautify streets and create the gateway, the Hutzler's building has become the focus of attention -- and criticism.
The building has been a white elephant for its owner, San Diego-based Hahn Co.
Hahn, which also owns Towson Town Center, has tried for years to lease or sell the 200,000-square-foot building. Prospective tenants have included home-furnishing stores, arts organizations, a radio station and merchants who wanted to use the building for storage. Last year, the company devised a plan to renovate the building to accommodate four medium-size stores.
Nothing has worked.
"They keep saying a tenant is just around the corner, but it's turned out to be an awfully long corner," said Wayne M. Skinner, executive director of the Towson Development Corp.
Hahn now has decided that subdividing the 30-year-old building would be too expensive, so again the company is seeking one tenant, said John Visconsi, director of leasing for the land development division of the Hahn Co.
He said Hahn is negotiating with a prospective tenant, but added that it would be at least a month before any agreement is reached. He wouldn't name the prospect and said negotiations are no more serious than discussions Hahn has had with many others.
Although the Hutzler's building is on prime real estate in the heart of the county seat, Mr. Visconsi said Hahn has had trouble leasing it because it lacks parking, needs renovations and was designed for one tenant. Hahn hopes to resolve the parking problem by offering a 2-acre parcel next to the mall.
Towson business leaders say they sympathize with Hahn's dilemma, but they're eager to see the building revived now that work is pending on the Towson gateway.
The State Highway Administration plans to build a $1 million traffic loop to ease congestion at the overburdened intersection on the northern end of town. An engineering firm has been hired to design the loop; construction should start next summer.
That project is to coincide with $1.2 million in streetscape improvements planned by the county and Towson businesses, bringing new brick sidewalks, trees and trash cans on York Road from the roundabout, or traffic circle, to Towsontown Boulevard. An additional $100,000 in federal money will be used to extend improvements to Burke Avenue.
The county also will decorate the center of the traffic roundabout, once a committee agrees upon the design.
Local college students have submitted designs that range from fountains and landscaping to elaborate sculptures. One student suggested placing two crashed cars in the peanut-shaped loop, to create a "monument to the frustration of the experience of navigating the roundabout."
Whatever the design, the center of the loop would be better than the current situation, said Carol Carpenter, head of the county's commercial revitalization program.
She noted that business activity has picked up in Towson recently, with long-vacant buildings being leased. A fast-food carryout called Wings to Go has opened in the 500 block of York Road, and a Mexican restaurant called Flutie Garcia's soon will open in the 400 block. Hudson Trail Outfitters will open nearby this summer, in the old Mano Swartz Furs store.
Ms. Carpenter said that with the improvements to the streets and intersections she is optimistic that a tenant eventually will be lured to the Hutzler's building. "Redevelopment of that building is vital."
Mr. Skinner said: "What we need is a link. Right now there's nothing there to attract people up there."