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Rotunda changes loom

Outside the stately Rotunda development in Hampden Tuesday evening, the late winter sun set against a clear sapphire sky, offering a peaceful view.

Inside, the scene was less serene.

A group of local residents and business owners gathered for a meeting on the future of the mixed-use development that opened in 1971 as a retail hub in North Baltimore.

Word last month that the Giant grocery store food was moving to a former Super Fresh location a mile away has led to speculation about prospects for the Rotunda — even as owner Hekemian & Co. Inc. has pledged to pump $100 million into it for a renewal that will include 300 apartments and a parking garage.

“We are interested in getting this project built as soon as possible,” said Chris Bell, a senior vice president for Hekemian. “We hope to break ground next summer and we think we can do it.”

That timetable isn’t suitable to others, though.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose 14th District includes the Rotunda, said Giant’s approaching departure means developers should move at lightning speed to replace it with another grocer and fill the other vacant shop space.

“Nobody knows exactly when Giant will go,” Clarke said. “They are fixing up the old store, making changes now. It could be anytime.”

Giant’s move will leave only Rite Aid, a handful of other stores and the Rotunda Cinemas open there.

To those who remain, business is slow. Most days, the mall traffic is minimal, said Fariba Sadjadi, manager of the Hair Cuttery there.

“When {Giant} moves down the street, we’re probably going to lose some customers,” Sadjadi said. “Now, with four or five stores open in here, that means there’s no traffic anymore. We can do much better, but a lot of people don’t know about it.”

Once a shopping mecca

Back in its heyday and through the 1980s, the Rotunda attracted thousands of customers each week to unique small shops that included Cook’s Cupboard, Tomlinson Arts and Crafts, Horn and Horn Smorgasbord, The Bead and Recordmasters.

“Retail leasing was successful,” said Bobby Manekin, whose father’s company, the Manekin Corp., developed the Rotunda in the late 1960s, converting it from the Maryland Casualty Insurance Co. to its present-day configuration.

Chris Bell, a senior vice president for Hekemian & Co., shows plans for future improvements at The Rotunda to a group of merchants and community members Tuesday night.

Besides retail, offices for the Social Security Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Johns Hopkins space telescope lab were also located there, he said.

“It was a mid-town location where the only other office location was [the Village of] Cross Keys, and that was more upscale,” Manekin said. “It was the first Giant food store to open in the city — we gave the community a place to get groceries, dry cleaning and banking all in one stop.”

Years of attrition in the retail portion left the mall outdated. Many store owners relocated to more successful suburban malls such as the Shops at Kenilworth and the Hunt Valley Towne Center.

Such losses concern Clarke and other community leaders.

Losing Giant means that the nearly 400 retirees who live in three senior complexes surrounding the development will have to go elsewhere to get groceries, she said.

Now, many can be seen walking to Giant, often with portable push carts, throughout the day.

“We need a grocery store there,” Clarke said. “I think there are a number of similar stores that are interested — and we need something now.”

Bell said a plan to redo the Rotunda’s design had included an apartment tower and expansion of the Giant grocery space from about 30,000 square feet to 68,000 square feet.

But now, any new grocer will have to locate into the present, small space, Bell said, because of an agreement with Giant not to replace it with a larger grocery store. That was part of the deal to let Giant out of its long-term lease, he added.

“It’s about competition and they’re going to be just down the street,” Bell said. “We are restricted from doing a grocery store that is more than 20,000 square feet.”

Clarke wants fast action

A community petition drive for a Trader Joe’s grocery store is underway, Clarke said, although Bell said the specialty grocer was not commenting on the chances of a city location.

In the meantime, Clarke said Bell’s meeting with the community raised more flags instead of calming nerves about the high Rotunda vacancy rate.

Planning, he said, would take eight months and construction another 20.

“We can’t be looking at three years of an empty Rotunda,” Clarke said, adding she was going to request that Giant sponsor a jitney service for the retirees along 40th Street once the new store opens.

“We want what they had when they go: A viable, sheltered indoor corridor where thousands of people who live within a mile of that place could meet there,” she said.

A community task force on the Rotunda has reconvened, and Clarke said meetings will be held throughout the coming months. She also plans to meet with city agencies to see what can be done to help speed up the Hekemian project.

“Chris Bell said he’d be calling a follow-up meeting,” Clarke said. “But I’m not waiting for that. I’m talking to people in city government now about the priority of the neighborhood.”