A pioneer shopping center has been turning into a ghost town in the midst of bustling Ritchie Highway over the past few years and now faces an uncertain future or even demolition.
The Rouse Co. refuses to give details, but mall managers and tenants say the shopping center giant is on the verge of selling Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, its first enclosed mall and the first one built east of the Mississippi.
James W. Rouse, the company's founder, foresaw the massive migration into the suburbs that followed World War II, and in 1958 built a whole new way to shop: Harundale Mall. The historic modern meeting place cost $10 million. Rouse, who died last year, went on after Harundale to become one of the world's largest builders of regional shopping malls.
When Harundale opened Oct. 1, 1958, trees mostly lined a two-lane Ritchie Highway. Rouse schmoozed with customers. Politicians showed up, including a campaigning John F. Kennedy, who cut the ribbon.
Hochschild Kohn's department store anchored the 45-store mall.
Value City Department Store anchors the mall today, about 16 stores are empty and only two of the original stores remain: BGE's Appliance & Electronics store and Lerner Shops. Occupancy has dropped from 80 percent to 65 percent in just two years as some stores have moved in, but many more have moved out.
Closed shops are cloaked with grates, decorated boards or posed mannequins advertising other businesses. Mall management has begun quietly seeking out new jobs for its own 20 employees.
Any merchants who opt to stay past July 2 will get leases renewable month-to-month, said Conrad McClung, the mall's manager.
"I think our employees know essentially what the mode is at the present time, which is selling the mall," said McClung, to whom Rouse corporate officials referred all questions.
"We are negotiating with potential buyers. We cannot tell you who they are. We've been asked by the buyers not to divulge that information. If and when we are prepared to make an announcement, we will get that information out," he said. "We don't know what the plans of these buyers who are coming in are."
But mall merchants say they have been told the old shopping center will be partly or entirely torn down. Martha Batterton, part-owner of Dial Electronics, said McClung told her that partial demolition would improve the appearance of the mall.
Strip shopping centers now are strung along traffic-clogged Ritchie Highway, and two modern malls crowd Harundale.
Glen Burnie Mall, built in 1963 but renovated and updated with specialty shops two years ago, is three miles to the north. Marley Station Mall, built in 1987, is one mile south and draws customers with yuppie magnets like Macy's and a movie complex.
Harundale's decline, which began in earnest with the opening of Marley Station, is not unique. Across the nation, regional malls, even new ones, are coping with unprecedented competition.
Nearly half the nation's 1,800 enclosed malls are 20 years old or more. Some are thriving; some, like Glen Burnie Mall, have modernized to survive; others are struggling, said Mark Schoifet, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York trade group.
"This is probably one of the most competitive eras in modern retail's 40-year history," said Schoifet, and Harundale is "one of the pioneers of the era."
But now it and all malls battle against warehouse clubs, catalog companies and megastores like Circuit City for customers.
A 'double blow'
"Some of the smaller-end malls are under a lot of pressure because they're being squeezed on two ends," Schoifet said.
"On the high end, regional malls are being squeezed by flashier, larger malls that are newer. And they're being squeezed at the lower end by catalog and category killers. So it's a double blow."
Rouse put Harundale up for sale in 1995, as part of the company's efforts to focus on larger regional malls and mall festival centers and to shed smaller projects.
About four employees who were worried about the inevitable sale of the mall and asked for transfers have been moved to other Rouse properties, McClung said. He would not say where.
In January, at least three merchants received notices of lease termination by certified mail. Two are moving out. The other merchant is staying, hoping to fit in with whatever the new owners may have planned for the mall.
Michael Marcellino, whose father, Gus, opened Harundale Barbershop in 1948 around which Harundale Mall grew, moved out March 1. He took his Head First Styling Salon to East Furnace Branch Road, just off Ritchie Highway.
"Business there [Harundale] has deteriorated so much that I couldn't wait for the mall to remodel and start all over again. I had to keep going. I had an idea of what was happening. Before I got a 60-day notice, I wanted to have a place to go," said Marcellino. "I didn't want to stay there and die."
Glen Burnie County Councilman James "Ed" DeGrange said that he'd been worried about Harundale since Marley Station opened. "I think it was a good indication of what was to be. That they had to change their whole niche and I think they were trying to do that with Value City.
"I felt it was becoming a ghost town a year or two ago when I was there. There was no activity," said DeGrange. "The only draw was Value City and without them it seemed there'd be no activity."
A visit to Harundale a month ago didn't change his mind.
"It's empty," DeGrange said. "It's a ghost town."
The pressure of not knowing is oppressive.
Mimi Arbabi, owner of Gem Boutique, said, "People are leery because they don't know if we're going to be in business tomorrow. The day we got the letter I didn't stay at work. I left. I couldn't."
When she came to Harundale in 1994, the mall was fully occupied, she said. She had to wait nearly five months for a slot.
Vice president of the merchants association at the mall, she said the group has not met since December and knows few details of what's going on.
Eugene and Chau Speranza took over Norm's Deli three years ago. They've sunk about $70,000 into the fast-food business and they still owe the previous owner money. They've received one of the notices, but they can't afford to lose their investment. They have to take their chances with a new owner, Chau Speranza said.
Pub Date: 3/27/97