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A mall reinvented

The Baltimore Sun

Janet Middlebrooks and her sister-in-law were always trying to diet, so when they met for weekly excursions at Harundale Mall half a century ago, they always ordered the Waldorf salad at the upstairs cafeteria.

From the get-go, Middlebrooks, now 81, was a devotee of the Glen Burnie shopping center, the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi. She saw the governor cut the ribbon at the mobbed opening, bought groceries and clothes, and occasionally participated in evening square-dancing demonstrations. Her son, now an Anne Arundel County councilman, had an after-school job at the mall's leather store. And when her husband wanted to buy her a gift he would head to Hochschild Kohn, the anchor department store, where the sales girls - as Middlebrooks calls them - knew her size and taste.

"It was a family place," Middlebrooks said. "I just really miss it."

Now just about all that remains of the original mall, which opened to much fanfare 50 years ago, is a gray rock that pays tribute to the founders and nods at what once was.

"Harundale Mall," the engraving reads. "Opened: October 1, 1958."

The handiwork of developer James Rouse - the utopian thinker who went on to plan such projects as Columbia and Baltimore's Harborplace - the mall fell victim to changing consumer tastes, lifestyles and demographics. In 1999, it was demolished and replaced with a strip shopping center that's all but indistinguishable from thousands of others with drive-through banks and vast parking lots. Renamed Harundale Plaza, the center's continuing evolution is emblematic of what is happening around the country to the old-fashioned, enclosed malls that used to be the toast of the lunching, browsing, shopping set.

"My God, I thought it was older than that," said Francis T. Taliaferro, 86, an original architect, after learning that the mall would have celebrated its 50th birthday this week.

It certainly can feel that way, given the changing fortunes of enclosed malls, which flourished into the early 1990s, but now are on the outs.

None is under construction right now, said Erin Hershkowitz, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade association. In their stead, developers are building big-box centers, strip malls and so-called "lifestyle centers" - inside-out malls with movie centers, restaurants and stores along a main street. Perhaps the biggest trend of the moment is walkable, mixed-use complexes with housing, offices, retail, public space, open-air and civic activities, said Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. Almost 200 such town-center style developments are currently being built around the country, he said.

"You've got it all in one place. This is becoming more and more important for lots of reasons, not the least of which is rising energy prices," McMahon said. "These are places that attract people's affection - places they like to be. How many people do you know who go to strip malls and hang out? Almost nobody. Skateboarders maybe."

The retail landscape was very different in 1958, when the suburbs were booming, thanks in large part to young, car-owning families. When the $10 million Harundale Mall opened, newspapers crowed about stores that were "seconds apart" and air-conditioned, temperature-controlled sidewalks.

"The stores if in a straight line would stretch for one-half mile," according to a Sun article. "Even the trash cans are to be 'gay and colorful.' "

The mall sported burbling fountains, tropical plants and lockers for heavy coats. People would travel from far away to marvel over stores' sliding glass fronts, eat at the sunken Italian restaurant and shop at Read's drugstore, Food Fair, Da-Mar shoes and S.S. Kresge - names that now tend to elicit nostalgic sighs.

Linda Simons, 56, grew up in Glen Burnie and has fond memories of the hot fudge sundaes Read's drugstore served at its soda fountain. On their regular treks from Locust Point, Mary Siemer, 62, and her aunt almost always stopped at the Italian restaurant at the center of the mall. Shoppers of yore all seem to have a favorite memory: the decorations at Christmas time, the shoestore that always had what they wanted, the local bands that sometimes played.

"We all loved the Harundale Mall," Middlebrooks said.

The mall sent nearby downtown Glen Burnie into a tailspin, but before too long, the once-revolutionary center was itself eclipsed by big-box stores and larger, glitzier malls. Marley Station delivered a particularly harsh blow when it opened a mile down Ritchie Highway in the late 1980s.

Traffic began to drop off, stores left and people complained that the once-glorious mall was shabby and antiquated. Rouse sold the project, which reopened after an unceremonious razing and a $20 million conversion, in 1999.

These days, the plaza - owned by the Cleveland-based Developers Diversified - has 18 tenants, including a Super Fresh grocery store, A.J. Wright, Hollywood Tans and a post office. A Burlington Coat Factory is set to replace Value City, which recently closed.

Gem Boutique, a jewelry store that opened at the old mall in 1992, is the only shop that survived the transition. The owners, Mimi Arbabi and Hoss Mafi, still talk about the way things used to be.

"Everyone was so sad when they tore it down. Even until this day, people come in and reminisce," Arbabi said. "A lot of people grew up in that mall. ... It was like a gathering place, really."

The plaza functions perfectly well, she said, but the sociability she used to relish is long gone. "Most days I don't hope to see anybody familiar," she said. "When I see a friendly face, I get so excited."

It is ironic that Rouse's project ended up as a strip mall, said Joshua Olsen, who wrote a biography of the developer, because he had envisioned Harundale Mall as an antidote to the aesthetically and socially impoverished strip shopping center.

"It's strange to talk about the community and malls, but that's very much what he wanted to do is create a place where people could gather and at least rub elbows," Olsen said.

Few think he would be happy about what happened to his Harundale Mall.

"I don't think he would like it at all. ... Not a bit," Arbabi said. "That was his baby."

But on a recent, quiet morning, few visitors seemed troubled by the fate of Rouse's pet project. Some allowed that they missed the old mall, but strip centers are convenient, they said as they swung by for their mail, stopped for pizza or picked up groceries.

That acceptance might be misleading - on Harundale Mall's 100th birthday, if anyone remembers it, the plaza may have a wholly different form, according to McMahon.

"In my judgment, strip retail is retail without a future, especially in a carbon-constrained world," he said. "What are defining features of the suburban strip? First of all, they are ugly. And second of all, they are congested. ... Try that as a shopping slogan."

People may say they like it, but such boosters may be unaware of the alternatives, he said. He imagines that many strip malls will go through transformations to become friendlier to residents, transit and pedestrians.

Michael Beyard, also a fellow at the Urban Land Institute, agreed. "We think that, slowly, communities will recognize that these older strips have outlived their usefulness," he said. "There could be opportunity there."

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