Rouse's glittering jewels of retail lose their luster


I COUNT 14 vacancies at Harborplace, eight of them in the Light Street Pavilion and six more on Pratt Street. This, for the alleged crown jewel of the city's first modern renaissance? I count half a dozen vacancies along the ground-level retail area of the Village of Cross Keys. This, for the village shopping area that once bustled with energy and good cheer and high-profile personalities? I count 22 vacancies at the Owings Mills shopping mall. This, for the center that once seemed part shopping mall and part commercial Taj Mahal?

What we have here, besides arithmetic, is an unsettling pattern. All are properties with a special niche in the Baltimore metropolitan psyche. Once trumpeted as embodiments of classy commercial real estate, all now have the atmosphere of a carnival when most of the fun has faded.

And all are owned by the Rouse Co., from which Jim Rouse once brought progressivism and foresight and great joy to the business of real estate. The idea of a single vacancy at such glittery locations would have concerned him; the notion of 42 empty spaces, each a symbol of economic failure and vulnerability, would have stunned him.

"We do have more vacancies than we've traditionally had," Duke Kassolis, Rouse senior vice president for property operations, admitted yesterday.

"We've had these questions before, particularly about Owings Mills," added Nancy Tucker, Rouse corporate communications specialist.

So many stores at Owings Mills are empty that their fronts are decorated to avoid the boarded-up feel of a ghost town. Behind locked doors, there is only darkness. Shopkeepers in the northwest Baltimore County mall keep track of vacancies like worried homeowners in a neighborhood where friends keep moving away.

The other morning at Owings Mills, a woman from Heakin Research, Judy Shusta, approached those few people strolling through the mall to ask if they'd answer a questionnaire about shopping habits.

"I'm supposed to work 10 to 5," Shusta said, "but they usually send us home by 3. There's nobody here for us to talk to."

The same problem prevails at the Village of Cross Keys, the little shopping area off Falls Road just below Northern Parkway. The place used to jump. The Cross Keys Deli seemed to explode at lunchtime with customers such as Oprah Winfrey and Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and local broadcast and sporting types. And the energy from the deli crowds spilled through the entire retail area.

But the Rouse Co. squeezed the deli's owners so hard that they moved. Yesterday, company Vice President Kassolis said, "There's a remembrance of what the deli was that doesn't match what it actually was."

Later came the collapse of the Bibelot bookstore at Cross Keys. It's not fair to blame Rouse for the financial failure of a company whose owners created their own highly publicized troubles - but, even when Bibelot was alive at Cross Keys, it was never a hit. The crowds were already gone. And the huge Bibelot space has been empty now (except for Donna's restaurant clinging to its old second-floor corner) for more than a year.

The emptiness resembles such properties as the former Sears and the former Lord & Taylor at Owings Mills, and the emptiness of the former Planet Hollywood at Harborplace.

"In this economy, you're going to have some merchants who are successful and some who aren't," Kassolis said. "Planet Hollywood had a problem. It was a restaurant with a theme that ran its course. So we got the space back."

But the space, at the highly visible heart of Harborplace, has been vacant for nine months.

Kassolis pointed out that Harborplace sales average about $700 per square foot. "That's in the top 3 or 4 percent of the country," Kassolis said. But the numbers don't necessarily reflect overall trouble, because they're inflated by two major tenants: the wildly successful Phillips Seafood, which just underwent a $5 million renovation and expansion, and the Cheesecake Factory, "one of the highest-volume restaurants in the country per square foot," according to Kassolis.

"I'm not concerned about Harborplace," he said. "It's 22 years old, and it has turnover, which is natural."

And Owings Mills? "It was originally merchandised for an affluent market. When Nordstrom went to Towson, it shifted forever the location of where the affluent shopper would go. We've been in the process of remerchandising to suit the market: middle-income people living in starter homes."

Also, Kassolis admitted, "We have more space than the market can handle, more than we can reasonably absorb. Over time, we believe it will correct itself."

At the present time, though, Owings Mills has that sense of a once-fashionable grand dame now looking ignored and undernourished. And, among Rouse properties, it is not alone.

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