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Old Town Mall waits for rescue after years of decline, neglect

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a typical day, there's nobody inside Bernie Delay's little tailor shop on Old Town Mall.

No patrons. No tailor.

Sprawled on a folding chair outside, waiting for business and hoping for a breeze, he comes up empty. "There's nothing doing," he says with an old man's sigh.

Old Town - a walking mall lined with weedy lots, careworn stores, Civil War-era architecture and disco-era renovations - stands frozen. Caught between Baltimore's best efforts at urban renewal, long waves of municipal neglect and the mirage of redevelopment proposals that loom just out of reach, it is a place where business owners and neighbors wait for change and wonder why.

Why does the nation's first inner-city neighborhood mall - which placed Baltimore on the map for urban planners in 1975 - stands a near-ghost town today? And why must a dream of bringing in a large grocery store to stabilize the mall cost some shopkeepers their stores?

"You'd think the city would try to save us," says Stephen Pinnick, a haberdasher whose Model Men's Shop store has anchored the 400 block of Old Town since 1963. "They got a whole lot of plans to do to the mall; why isn't the city doing nothing for the mall?"

The latest plan is also an old one. It goes like this: get a developer to find a major supermarket chain to build downtown's largest grocery store in the middle of Old Town Mall.

This time, to spur the concept to completion, the Baltimore Development Corp. wants the city's blessing to tear down 11 businesses to build the grocery store's parking lot. It wants the power of eminent domain to acquire half a dozen more in case Fairfax, Va.-based developer Peterson Cos. needs extra space for the $22 million project. And BDC proposes reopening Gay Street to car traffic.

Six times over the past dozen years, versions of the idea have floundered, most recently when Safeway backed out this spring. Before Peterson, Lutherville-based Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust gave it a go, but it couldn't win a commitment from a large-scale grocery store.

The hitch - again - is finding a supermarket to sign on.

Still, Kevin Malachi thinks the time is right for a renewed Old Town.

Malachi, director of small-business and neighborhood development for BDC, the quasi-public agency that oversees the city's business development, is responsible for projects around the city. But it is Old Town that haunts him.

"My first day on the job, I said, 'What the hell is going on with this place?' " Malachi says, remembering his first visit to the mall three years ago.

In better days, a $3 million effort refurbished the dreary three-block stretch of old Gay Street into an attractive 1970s shopping district.

Shadows of that revitalization remain: Raised concrete pads dot the bricked pedestrian pathway, and glass globes top a handful of triple-pronged light poles. A 40-foot sign with a brown-and-orange clover logo is overhead.

There is a general consensus that the years have been rough on the mall's struggling shop owners, siphoning off their customer base and marooning once-vibrant businesses. But time has been just as hard on the mall's cosmetic state.

The sparsely occupied 400 block, whose variegated architecture dates back 150 years, crosses the ghost of Forrest Street and passes through the littered fields left behind when, in recent years, the BDC tore down blighted storefronts and the shuttered 19th-century Belair Market.

In the 500 block, the huge concrete planters that used to sit on the raised circles in the middle of the street are gone, and so is the sign that reminded shoppers how much time they had left to shop.

Most of the light poles are bare.

Broken panes fill the windows of one vacant building, and the sky peeks through the roof of another. The mall wends past a liquor store, a handful of clothing and beauty shops, a few fish and chicken joints, and one or two general stores before it peters out at the round-windowed senior citizens home on Monument Street.

Acquisition, demolition

Plans call for a 60,000-square-foot grocery store to fit into the west side of the mall, beside a 20,000-square-foot box that would house smaller, high-rent tenants. A wrecking ball would level the east side to make room for the parking lot, between Upward Way Bible Shop to Lady J'ae Beauty Supply.

"Developers need a certain parking field and a certain parking ratio," says BDC Executive Vice President Andy Frank. "And that path calls for some acquisition and some demolition."

Walking the length of the mall last week, Frank commiserates with merchants who have grown wary and weary of schemes to revive Old Town.

"I think the city historically shares some culpability on getting to this condition," Frank says, pausing near a fountain vagrants use as an open-air urinal. "It's the uncertainty that causes the deterioration."

Squatting amid major new and planned development in every direction, Old Town should be a sure thing. To its west lies the state's penal complex, including the juvenile justice center set to open in October with 800 employees. On the hill to the east sits Johns Hopkins Hospital, whose proposed biotech park would stretch above and below Old Town Mall.

Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a regular customer along the mall, has little patience for how development bloomed around it even as merchant demands for better policing, empowerment dollars and the reopening of Gay Street went unheeded.

"Nothing has been done," he says. "The only thing that has been done is those merchants have invested their own money, trying to fix up their stores and attract more merchants to come there."

The occupancy rate, which hovered around 60 percent a year ago, is closer to 75 percent this summer. New merchants, drawn to its low rents of roughly $7 a square foot and its mix of black and Asian shopkeepers, figure it can only get better, says Michael Wise, vice president of the mall's business association.

"In the past, it was just speculation," Wise says, as shop owners near his Urban Family Wear store opened one morning last week. "This time, individuals believe it's really going to happen."

Old-timers, especially those facing demolition, are skeptical.

"This used to be a very thriving place," says Jeff Lawson, co-owner of Your Super Music.

Without a shopper to distract him on a hazy weekday afternoon, Lawson has plenty of time to talk about the "tentative state" he occupies with other doomed merchants.

"That's the feeling you get," Lawson says as he looks out across his paneled walls, bins of vinyl LPs and faded packs of saxophone reeds. "You get no support. They've left us here in this tentative state: We can't fix our properties because they might tear them down."

Like Lawson, Jesse Collins grows vexed at the dearth of customers - and frustrated because she can do little to bring in new ones.

Shoppers are such a rarity at her worn beauty supply shop that Collins, her daughter and granddaughter settle into marathon sessions of their favorite card games every day without fear of interruption.

"We play up to 5,000 points," Collins says as 6-year-old Taylor Ruffin shuffles the deck.

For the first of her 11 years in Old Town, business was good, she says. Then it nose-dived.

Fear of being displaced

Collins counts on 6-inch-long curled red fingernails the reasons she thinks the mall fell into ruin: Indifference. Politics. Racism. Greed.

"If this was not a black mall, it would never have gone down the way it is," she says. "I'm like Forrest Gump: That's all I have to say about that."

No one says the word gentrification, but the fear of being displaced so a developer can select the retail mix of the new Old Town simmers just below the surface.

"We are minority business owners trying to make it work. We need to stay in the community. We need to be part of the process," says Wilbert Andrews, owner of a Guilford Avenue printing company.

At a federal auction five years ago, Andrews brought a property in the 400 block directly across from Engine No. 6 - the oldest fire station in Baltimore. His building has stood vacant since, while he awaits zoning changes to allow him to open a branch of Andrews Reproduction Center on the Old Town site.

BDC's plan to buy him out grates on his pride.

"If the building's going to stay, and I'm willing to put up the money to make it blend in with the developer's plans, why should I give up my rights for the Peterson company?" he asked the BDC's Frank at a recent Old Town meeting at Dunbar High School.

Pinnick, the men's clothier, also owns several other properties in the path of development. He thinks he divines the answer to Andrews' question in Mayor Martin O'Malley's push to bring in upscale development projects around the city.

"They want condos over here," Pinnick says, turning the word over distastefully as he examines the empty mall. "They want as much of the property as possible. That's why they starved the place out and why they've been tearing it down as they go along. They want to rebuild it for the preppies."

Frank dismisses the thought outright.

Like the merchants, Frank remembers the Gay Street and Old Town Mall of his childhood.

Its apparel stores - the long-gone Isaac Benesch Clothing, Leading Dress Shop and Epstein's, and the still-operating Queen's Women's Apparel - lured his mother from Baltimore County with nostalgia, fair prices and old-fashioned service.

And although the revised urban renewal plan would prohibit operations such as plasma donor centers and new bail bonds offices, Frank says Old Town shouldn't abandon its humble Baltimore roots.

"It's never gonna be a Georgetown," he says, squinting in the morning light that pours over the low store fronts near a billboard on which a pregnant Mona Lisa rubs her belly next to the words: "Who's Your Daddy?"

"It's not intended to be a destination for the county. This is for the neighborhood of East Baltimore."

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