Sixty-year-old Edmondson Village Shopping Center, the first retail center in Baltimore designed for suburban shoppers and their cars, is being bought for $14 million by investors who see opportunity in the hundreds of new homes planned for the Uplands nearby.
Pikesville-based America's Realty, which has a contract to buy the 155,000-square- foot center, plans to spend another $2.5 million to $3 million on improvements and is negotiating leases with tenants to fill three vacancies.
Plans are under way to fill the center's long-vacant second story with a 40,000- square-foot fitness club and to build a medical center and an undetermined number of affordable townhouses behind it, said Carl Verstandig, president and chief executive of the retail developer.
"I see the potential that the center can be back to what it was many years ago," said Verstandig, who won out over about a half-dozen competitors to buy the West Baltimore center from the Baltimore-based seller, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. "The goal is to make this a complete shopping experience. As long as you provide services, people do not go out of the area."
The closing can occur anytime until Jan. 30, said Joel Winegarden, corporate officer for real estate for the charitable foundation.
Verstandig expects the million-dollar-plus face-lift and additional stores will bring the center the kind of success it had in its earliest days. When it was built in 1947, the center gained fame as one of the first planned suburban centers in the nation.
For years, it had few retail competitors in the area. Residents of the neighborhood and western Baltimore County suburbs shopped there for groceries, clothing and shoes as well as at the first suburban branch of Hochschild Kohn, an established downtown department store. The Hess Shoe store, which also had a barbershop, was known for the live monkeys in its display windows, and people came from miles around at holiday time for the annual lighting of the center's shop windows and trees.
Original retailers such as Food Fair, Hess, Whelan's Drugs, a movie theater and bowling alley are long gone. But merchants have continued to draw plenty of shoppers despite the loss of the last residents nearly three years ago from the now vacant, low-income Uplands Apartments. The city, which owns the Uplands site and approved plans to raze the two-story brick buildings, is selecting a developer for the $300 million project to build more than 1,100 new mixed-income apartments, condominiums and single-family homes.
"The preliminary plans I've heard about a mixed-use redevelopment of the shopping center is exactly what is called for," Paul T. Graziano, commissioner of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said yesterday. "It will be very complementary to over 1,100 units of [Uplands] housing. This new investment ... can only support that and encourage more investment across that Edmondson corridor."
Verstandig maintains that the center would be a sound investment even without the Uplands redevelopment, thanks to the sheer numbers of people -- 100,000 within three miles -- in the area.
"Despite clearing out that [Uplands] housing, the majority of tenants are maintaining sales and doing well," he said. "The center is very active despite its appearance."
The success of one of his earlier retail redevelopments farther east on Edmondson Avenue also has given Verstandig confidence about Edmondson Village's potential. America's Realty transformed a vacant, turn-of-the century warehouse that once housed trolley cars into a shopping center with a minimarket, gas station and car wash, laundromat, clothing store and convenience store.
Verstandig said that Rosemont Village, which opened in the Rosemont community in 2004, has remained stable with no turnover in tenants.
The Edmondson Village center fits the company's strategy of buying up partially occupied centers, typically a quarter to 40 percent vacant, in densely populated but underserved neighborhoods at a competitive price. Then the company fills them with stores and services that will keep area residents shopping close to home. America's Realty typically lures tenants with below-market rents, and a tenant would pay a percentage of sales as part of the rent after they reach a certain sales volume.
The company owns 114 shopping centers, mostly in Maryland, but including a few in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Maryland centers stretch from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland with 40 in Baltimore City. With its $14 million price tag, Edmondson Village was the company's priciest acquisition ever. Verstandig is buying it in partnership with Ira Miller of Miller Investments, who is also a partner in two other America's Realty centers.
"Carl can identify good centers to work on," Miller said. "I find Edmondson Village an attractive urban center in need of some renovation. The redevelopment will be good for the neighborhood. Economically, this investment makes a lot of sense. We look forward to being a part of a center that is a part of the history of Baltimore."
Verstandig said he is close to signing leases for two anchor spots, the 20,000-square foot former Save-A-Lot store, which closed several years ago, and a 10,000-square-foot spot that formerly housed a Rite Aid.
He described one tenant as a discount variety store and the other as a merchant specializing in family apparel and party goods. He just signed a lease with an apparel merchant who is moving into a 4,000-square- foot vacancy. He expects to fully lease the center in six to seven months, including stand-alone tenants on an underused lower parking level in front of the center.
Plans call for refurbishing the center with new lighting, sidewalks, store canopies and a repaved parking lot.
The original blocks-long building facing Edmondson Avenue will be preserved but cleaned up. It was built by Joseph and Jacob Meyerhoff in a Colonial style with brick facades and touches such as decorative chimneys, slate roofs and bay and dormer windows to give it a residential look, according to neighborhood information from the Live Baltimore Home Center.
Verstandig said that behind the center on 8.5 vacant acres, he plans to build a 50,000-square- foot medical center and is in talks with area physicians and hospitals in need of office space. He also said he would bring in a residential developer to build an undetermined number of townhouses that could sell in the range of $200,000 to $275,000.
David Hartman, owner of Edmondson Village Pawn Shop, a 16-year tenant at the Edmondson Village, is eagerly awaiting all the changes and was happy to hear about new tenants and new development.
Besides the pawn shop, other tenants include a University of Maryland Medical Center, a Subway sandwich shop, Murry's Steaks, a barbershop, Family Dollar, Chernin's Shoe Outlet and Jackson Hewitt.
Hartman said business has been tougher since former Uplands residents moved away about four years ago, but that he has a loyal customer base.
"We've been tightening our belts for four years," Hartman said. "But things are going to get better."