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Monster mall rising in shadow of BWI


Robert A. Sulak has enough on his mind to rouse him at 3 a.m. some mornings.

For starters, there's 25,000 cubic yards of concrete; 3,000 construction workers; a dozen general contractors and dozens more subcontractors; nine miles of road work; leases, permits and delivery dates for 190 specialty stores and 16 anchors; a rainy summer; problems in the food court and the matter of whether Books-A-Million will cover its entrance with tile or painted concrete.

Sulak, senior project manager for Arundel Mills, swears he's not a bit panicked about coordinating it all in time for the $250 million, entertainment-oriented megamall to open Nov. 16 near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"It's not panic," Sulak said. Rather, "The tempo and the pulse of the project is definitely building. We are out of time for letting things go until tomorrow."

Sulak, also a vice president for Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corp., is ultimately responsible for keeping the schedule, meeting the budget and coordinating thousands of details that will add up to the Baltimore area's largest - and perhaps even the last - super-regional mall. Surveying the shell of the mall taking shape off Route 100 in Hanover, just east of Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Sulak doesn't appear to have the weight of an entire 1.6 million square foot structure on his shoulders.

Working with Dennis J. Connolly, Mills' vice president and senior development director, Sulak has coordinated with lead general contractor Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., which is handling road work, the mall structure and common areas.

Another three to five contractors build specialty stores once Mills turns over their space, while another six to seven contractors build anchor stores - some of which include Off 5th Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet, Muvico Theaters, Bed Bath & Beyond, Old Navy, Burlington Coat Factory, a Jillian's entertainment complex and Bass Pro.

Each general contractor, in turn, hires its own subcontractors.

"This has been a real good project," said Sulak, who has worked on malls, hotels and office buildings during 27 years in commercial development. "You don't have to spend a lot of time telling people they have to work long hours or get in earlier or stay later. You see people at all hours. If I can keep the roadblocks out of their way, things move along smoothly."

Sulak and his team are working toward the day when shoppers will be propelled along a milelong "racetrack" through five themed neighborhoods filled with specialty stores and off-price outlets, restaurants and an Egyptian-themed, 24-screen megaplex. About 17 million visitors are expected to spend $400 million annually.

But, with that day still months off, workers in hard hats and safety glasses are pouring concrete and installing wood flooring in the common area, putting up drywall, painting, installing lighting, tinkering with plumbing and duct work and laying tile in the food court. Outside, where dump trucks rumble over dirt roads, even more workers are realigning Ridge Road and building a new interchange at BW Parkway.

Arundel Mills is the largest project Sulak has ever supervised. That's no wonder; it's one of the largest single construction projects ever for the Baltimore-Washington region, said Lewis Bolan, president of real estate consultant Bolan Smart Associates.

"It's a monster, no question about that," Bolan said.

It is five times the size of most downtown office towers or hotels, twice the size of Bethlehem Steel's new cold sheet mill at Sparrows Point, bigger than Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Arundel Mills is racking up enough man-hours to keep 50 people working full-time for 25 years and takes enough carpeting for about 1,000 homes and about 62,000 light bulbs. It is built with 7,000 tons of steel girders - enough steel to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge 12 times.

It is one of the new breed of malls. Malls now average 1.2 million square feet - more than 70 percent bigger than malls built just over a decade ago, the International Council of Shopping Centers says. Malls also have strayed from traditional formats, often mixing outlet and off-price stores with entertainment-oriented tenants. Arundel Mills will be one of just 31 enclosed malls planned in the United States through 2002, ICSC says.

"We think it's the last mall of any kind that will be built in the Greater Baltimore area," said David M. Fick, a managing director of Legg Mason Wood Walker. "There are virtually no other sites that make sense, nor is there a demand."

He expects Mills to elbow its way into the ever-dwindling group of the area's strongest regional malls: Annapolis Mall, Columbia Mall, Towson Town Center, Owings Mills Mall and White Marsh Mall. Arundel Mills will attract out-of-state tourists and pull business from Marley Station in Glen Burnie and Columbia Mall, he says.

"New formats always attract the new shopper," Fick said.

For Sulak, the work day starts around 7 a.m., but often earlier. It propels him from meeting to meeting, with tenants, county officials, Mills' anchor project managers, tenant coordinators, contractors. Though tenant coordinators are primary contacts for retailers, Sulak has met each tenant.

As the opening date approaches, many issues center around retailers who have signed leases late or are still negotiating. Retailers have committed to about 74 percent of the center, Connolly said.

Many of the smaller stores often won't decide to join a project until they see who else is in. Until a lease is signed, or about to be, Mills, which has a good idea of tenant make-up based on its other malls, can't start building the "white box," the nearly finished store space that the retailer completes by the opening date.

That can mean "a space we were not planning on building out in its entirety may turn into an extensive construction project, and we need to redirect forces," Sulak said. "Certain tenants require a longer construction period after we turn the space over. It becomes a balancing act." Some tenants won't get into their space before late October.

During one weekly meeting on a recent day, Sulak and Connolly gathered with two anchor project managers, a design manager and John Wallace, another senior project manager, in their temporary trailer office.

"Let's go through all the anchor's status, and any issues you have," Sulak said.

Laura Hall-Wagner reported that the carpets and flooring had arrived for Burlington and that merchandise should arrive in six weeks. Sun & Ski Sports was worried about the visibility of its exterior sign. Books-A-Million had revised its floor finishes chainwide, but switching from tile to painted concrete at Mills would put the developer behind schedule. Wallace summed up the meeting with a half-serious joke: "We're right on track with all of our problems."

Sulak agreed, but he's seen worse.

"When you get toward the end of a project, sometimes you're at each others throats," he said, adding that at the Mills project, "We don't agree on everything, but we accept each other's reasons for disagreeing and find a way to get through it. At the end of the day ... we get to where we need to be."

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