Mondawmin's growing pains

Candy and nut shop Somethin' Good Jr. has been a mainstay at Mondawmin Mall for 35 years, but the owners now say a multimillion-dollar project to overhaul and improve the shopping center may drive them out.

Salih Ibn, who sells shea butter and other beauty products from a kiosk at the mall, said business has dropped significantly since renovations began.


And they are not the only merchants complaining.

Mondawmin, the city's oldest mall, is undergoing a $70 million makeover that will include the opening of an AJ Wright and the city's first Target this year. A Shoppers Food and Pharmacy grocery store opened in November, and General Growth Properties Inc., the mall's Chicago-based owner, is also in discussion with Marshalls.


The company promises a new and improved shopping environment for the mall, which in recent years has become a hodgepodge of small stores.

The renovations are the latest example of developers and retailers, who have long been focused on the suburbs, once again seeing viability in urban areas. General Growth said it expects to draw people from a much larger area than it does now.

But in the interim, the redevelopment has created a chaotic mess that is keeping shoppers away, some mall merchants said.

Other merchants complain that many of the smaller retailers that have helped the mall survive throughout the years will be displaced once the improvements are completed. Some have already closed shop.

The parking lots at Mondawmin have been dug up for new buildings, leaving fewer spaces for shoppers. The floors have been stripped and many of the storefronts boarded up. There is the constant sound of bulldozers and jackhammers.

"It really takes a strong merchant to make it through this," said Tina Imperial-Trainor, co-owner of Somethin' Good, adding that she is not sure if the business will survive.

General Growth has acknowledged that the construction has made doing business tough.

"There's no question that a redevelopment and the construction work that is necessary for the redevelopment is an inconvenience for the retailers and shoppers alike," said Jim Graham, senior director of public affairs for General Growth.


"We really think the long-term future of Mondawmin Mall is a bright one, thanks to the substantial investment we are making there," he added. "We are working hard to minimize the inconvenience to the retailers and the shoppers."

But Graham said that the mall improvements include changing the tenant lineup, and that some stores won't remain. The mall had 110 stores before the renovations and will have 100 afterward.

"For the future of Mondawmin Mall, we intend to introduce a new collection of retailers to the market," Graham said. "Part of any redevelopment involves taking a look at the retail mix and assuring that it's the best that it can be.

"To the extent that we can bring in some new offerings, that's a great opportunity for both our retailers and customers."

Neighborhood leaders, who have fought for improvements at the mall for years, said they welcome a mix of more national retailers.

"This is something the community wanted for sometime," said Sandra Almond-Cooper, president of the Mondawmin Neighborhood Improvement Association.


"A lot of the community didn't shop there because it was a hip-hop mall," she said. "We're getting national stores there and stores that the community wants to shop."

Said Lou Fields, president of the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce: "After many decades of disappointment and no investment, it's time for something to happen. We needed some new businesses. The mall was serving a predominant subset of the community - mostly the urban, under-25 shopper."

Wayne Frazier, president of the Maryland Washington Minority Contractors Association Inc., said that while new tenants are needed, General Growth should pursue independent, minority-owned merchants.

"I think there should be a shake-up in the mix there," Frazier said. "But I think General Growth will make an awful lot of money there, but have not done a good job in pursuing African-American merchants. And 99 percent of the folks that shop there are black folks."

One retail expert said that what is happening at Mondawmin is typical with such a big project.

"The idea behind the renovations is to let the existing retailers be more successful and also attract retailers that can afford to pay more rent and drive more traffic," said Thomas Maddux, president of brokerage firm KLNB Retail.


"Change is opportunity for some people, and change is not opportunity for others. That's a capitalist society. That's the way our economy works."

Most merchants agree that an improved mall will be better for business in the long run. But they said business is tough now. Some merchants have had to relocate more than once. While business is down, they still have to pay the rent. And some merchants say they're required to pay for renovations to their own stores.

Imperial-Trainor said she and her partner would have to get financing to pay for renovations. They've been told they probably won't be able to stay at their current location. The partners don't want to move and are starting to wonder if it's worth keeping the store open.

"We really have to think about this," Imperial-Trainor said. "In the long run, this will be good for the community," she added. "It needs the supermarket. It needs the Target. But right now it's tough."

Ibn, who sells the shea butter and beauty products, said he is just trying to hold on.

"It's got to get better," he said. "This is the livelihood for a lot of these businesses."


Burdell's, a jewelry store that has been at the mall for 49 years, said that while customer traffic has dropped since the renovations started, the company is willing to ride it out.

"Of course merchants are suffering, especially because of the parking," said Val Shterengarts, a co-owner of the jewelry store. "But as a veteran of the mall, I think this is for the future. A little dust today, but a face-lift tomorrow."

Keonna Bell, a manager at Honeycomb clothing store, said she hears customers complaining all the time about how difficult it is to get into the mall.

"Your first reaction when you come to Mondawmin Mall is, 'What is going on here?'" Bell said. "Customers talk about it all the time. But I think it will be worth it in the end."

Shopper Tamara Smith thought she would make a quick run into the mall recently to buy cashews. But finding parking was "difficult."

"I had to drive around a lot," said Smith, who works in a women's clothing shop in Baltimore.


Keisha Lyles, a 31-year-old math education major at Coppin State University, was ready to give up when a security guard directed her to a space. She came to get candy from Somethin' Good Jr. for her mother.

"She's lucky I found a space," Lyles said.