Upgrades on hold after five years at lackluster mall

The 1999 blueprints for a Mondawmin Mall makeover seemed promising, with plans for sprucing up the bland decor and erecting a super-sized grocery, a family restaurant and a retail store large enough to box-in a Home Depot.

But five years later, the West Baltimore shopping mall sits as it did then - an anchor-less bevy of sneaker, jewelry and clothing stores for the young - much to the dismay of some community leaders decrying the lack of diverse shopping outlets found at most suburban malls.


"If a man wants to get a nice suit or a nice white shirt, he can't find it anywhere in that mall. They've just got all that hip-hop stuff in there," said Nathaniel Freeman, president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council.

"The truth is, the mall makes money," said Freeman, who faults the mall's owner, Columbia-based Rouse Co. "It's just like a landlord that rents you property; as long as they can get money out of it as it is, why do anything to improve it?"


Opened in 1956, Mondawmin Mall was Baltimore's first two-level, enclosed shopping center. It was the first retail development and an endearing symbol for famed developer James W. Rouse, who 25 years ago proudly boasted of renovations taking place then at the mall, which was already considered antiquated.

In 1999, the Rouse Co. was again trying to improve the look and image of the mall, announcing it would build a 58,000-square-foot grocery, a 110,000-square-foot retail store, which could be an anchor, and a family restaurant. While the company says today that upgrades are still to come, there is no firm time frame for improvements to start.

"There is nothing to report," said Jody Clark, Rouse's vice president for property operations. "There is a body of work; there are people trying to figure out what is happening. But nothing will happen until at least 2006."


Clark, who oversees the Mondawmin property, said two issues are holding up plans to expand the mall: There isn't room yet for a large-scale supermarket, and big-name national retailers have rejected the site because they prefer prospering suburban areas.

"Certainly we would love to see a Target there, or a Wal-Mart there, or a grocery store that meets the needs of the community," Clark said. "But they still have other opportunities that don't lead them to urban locations.

"It's very challenging," she said. "This is going to take a while. It doesn't happen overnight."

Ideally, Rouse would like the busy Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration office in a building across the parking lot from the mall to move - on other mall property or elsewhere - to make room for the grocery store.


Clark said Rouse is working with the state to eventually move the MVA, but nothing is imminent.

Rouse has also tried to negotiate with the owners of a small Stop, Shop and Save grocery store on mall property to close and not compete with the planned supermarket. That grocery store, however, remains open.

Mondawmin Mall, though popular, is the West Baltimore epicenter for one of the city's most depressed communities, troubled on nearly all sides by drug activity, unemployment and low home ownership. Over the years, as the area around it has declined, so has the mall.

Built in 1956 on a 48-acre plot that was once part of the estate of Alexander Brown, the noted Baltimore banker, Mondawmin Mall originally catered primarily to a white Jewish area and was anchored by a Sears department store. It drew customers from beyond the city limits.

But by the 1960s, the neighborhood began shifting to majority black, as it is today. National retailers, fearing that blacks could not support the mall, began to leave. Sears pulled out in 1973, and by 1978 Mondawmin was barely surviving. A spate of well-publicized violent crimes, including shootings and muggings, in the mall's parking lot didn't help.

Rouse, which had developed the property, struck a deal in 1978 to begin managing the mall and later took over full ownership. By the mid-1980s, the mall had undergone renovations, become profitable again and was stamped a success story. But not for long.


Since the early 1990s, the mall has struggled to attract and retain national retailers. It never replaced Sears with another anchor. And while the mall remains highly profitable for Rouse, it is still shabby compared with other area malls.

Rouse, a public company since 1956 that trades as RSE on the New York Stock Exchange, reported $722 million in net operating income in 2003. It has developed office space, neighborhood projects and elaborate, destination shopping malls in 22 states.

The company's Web site says that "the attraction of The Rouse Company's Retail Centers extends beyond simply shopping. Each center functions as an integral part of the community in which it is located."

Rouse owns and operates higher-end shopping malls in Columbia, Towson, Owings Mills, White Marsh, Cross Keys in North Baltimore and Harborplace in downtown Baltimore. They include anchor stores like Nordstrom, Macy's, Lord & Taylor and Hecht's.

The most notable national stores at Mondawmin are Radio Shack and Foot Locker. Otherwise, the mall is dominated by local or regional retailers.

Community views


"Residents in that community would like to see higher-quality shopping in that mall," said City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who represents the area around the mall. "I think in terms of what people call a traditional mall, people go out into the counties for that."

Mitchell praised the mall as a source of jobs in an otherwise high-unemployment area - but pointed out that it has never had a successful bookstore in its 48-year history.

The mall also has two liquor stores, two rehabilitation centers, a parole office, a check-cashing stand and other such outlets befitting the social ills of the community it serves.

That's not all bad, said community leader Earl Arnett, who has lived near the mall since 1967.

"That's a plus, I think," Arnett said. "Because the surrounding neighborhood has special needs. We have problems with education, families and deteriorating neighborhoods. So I think it is appropriate that the urban mall has programs within it to address that."

But Arnett also noted Rouse's history for developing communities with its trademark shopping complexes at their center, such as Columbia in Howard County, which was planned down to the curvature of its streets and the open green spaces. Arnett wonders why Rouse won't similarly invest in the Mondawmin Mall area.


"We have two colleges, a transit center, Druid Hill Park, some stable neighborhoods, a mixture of assets that could really blossom into a substantial neighborhood," he said. "The mall is the key ingredient. If the Rouse Company could see that and invest in it, then we will have something really valuable for Baltimore."

While there are no similar plans to develop land around the mall, Clark insists that Rouse's long delays in starting renovations do not mean that Mondawmin is being ignored by the company. She added that the company is happy with the level of service the mall is already providing the community.

'Doing well'

"It's nothing systemically wrong with Mondawmin; however, we always try to make our malls better," Clark said. "Mondawmin is no different. It is doing well. It is a very successful.

"We definitely want to cater to the community that is there, that is our mainstay and that is our customer," Clark said. But as for mall improvement plans, "they are still in the oven, trying to cook."