by Benn Ray
Tonight, the Rotunda Community Task Force met in a mostly-unoccupied wing of the old Hampden mall to discuss the future of The Grand Rotunda.
About 40 people, including developers, city leaders, concerned residents, and community organization heads from nearby neighborhoods gathered to hear what the future, which has been less than kind in recent years, has in store for the historic building.
And for the next few years, the outlook for the Rotunda and its current retail tenants, after losing its anchor store Giant, is not rosy.
Hekemian acquired the mall and began the process of development in 2005. Before the development stalled out - a victim of the financial crisis of 2008, the project was designed as a 20 story hi-rise, with a hotel, condos, 300 apartments, a 60,000 square foot grocery store, and 270,000 square feet of retail.
According to developers, they were able to regain funding as early as 2009, but it was long-lease tenant Giant who slowed them down. The inference at the meeting was that Giant was somehow aware that SuperFresh would be going bankrupt and the company that bought them would also be going bankrupt and then Giant would be able to buy the market and move there. That requires a lot of foresight from the grocer if true.
Giant has not given Hekemian any time frame of when they'll be leaving the Rotunda (common wisdom suggests 6-8 weeks) and reopening a few blocks up the street in Greenspring Tower at the old SuperFresh/Fresh & Green's location. But, as part of the lease agreement - which sounds like the rare lease where the tenant seems to be holding the upper hand - Giant has agreed to let Hekemian out of their lease, which frees Hekemian to resume development of the project - but under the condition that Hekemian can not give more than 20,000 square feet to a grocery (which at best means only a "boutique" grocery and not a full-scale competitive grocery can open at the Rotunda). As a point of reference, the size of the the space that Giant is leaving because it is too small is 35,000 square feet.
So, as a result of the grocery store shuffle, Hampden will be losing 15,000 square feet of grocery retail when the development is complette. But actually, for the next few years, Hampden will be losing 35,000 square feet of grocery retail because until the development is finished, there will be no grocery retail going back into the Rotunda.
The developers are hoping to break ground in the summer of 2013 on a project they're now aiming to bring in under $100 million. They are anticipating an 18-20 month development - so that means if everything stays on schedule, most likely the new Grand Rotunda will not be unveiled until Summer 2015.
The original development called for a 20 story hi-rise. Developers are now looking at spreading the development out more, which means a 5-7 story building (this should come as a relief to nearby residents who were not thrilled about literally living in the shadow of what would be the tallest building in North Baltimore).
While they are still planning for 300+ market-rate apartments, they are no longer planning on condos (which the market couldn't sustain) or a hotel (which is something Hampden could actually use but was a victim of Giant's abandonment of the project).
The original project promised 270,000 square feet of retail. This new, less-ambitious project, is offering 130,000 square feet of retail.
Finally, for those who are concerned about the environmental impact - since the original building permit was granted in 2008, developers are going to seek waivers from LEED certification to avoid having to comply with current environmental standards.
So there you have it. Hampden is losing a grocery store for at least the next 3 years. And should one return, it will be a smaller, boutique market, not a full-service one. And in the interim, the Rotunda will languish without a retail anchor as developers begin the process of ramping up their less-ambitious project.