Thursday, March 16, 2017

Howard Brown plans second Baltimore County town-center

Developer Howard Brown's legendary stamina in eventually getting his way was on display on the Metro Center town center development in Owings Mills where it took many years before the MTA, the County, and Brown saw eye to eye on the 2 million squarefoot Metro Center transit oriented development.
Security Square Mall overlaid over downtown Annapolis:
A massive waste of space. Graphic: ArchPlan Inc.

At Security Square Mall  MTA is no longer at the table after the Red Line was canceled. But there are four additional mall owners to deal with. Brown controls only a small part of the mall and he still needs to buy out others before he can do much. So yesterday he went public with his plans to ensure that residents or County Council members won't create any problems.

County Councilman Tom Quirk and the Security Woodlawn Business Association organized a community meeting where Howard Brown made a rare personal appearance. The Morning Star church-hall on Security Boulevard was packed with local residents and business people. Nobody knew what would come, except that the ailing Security Square Mall was the topic of the gathering.

Councilman Quirk introduced Brown as "a visionary" and heaped praise on his many area developments including  "the truly transformative" Landsdowne Station, the "amazing" Boulevard Place next to Security Mall (former Chadwick Station) and, of course, Metro Center.
Councilman Quirk addresses the crowd
Topic: Security Square Mall (Photo Philipsen)

At Security Mall Howard Brown, so far, has only one of the Mall Owners in his corner in David Glick of Helmsman Properties. He owns the portion that was a succession of once glamourous department stores, including Hochschild and Montgomery Ward.
The other owners, Macys, the successor of JcPenny's, and Sears as well as the owners of the "in-line-stores" were not present. Glick, Brown and  their Venable land use attorney David Karceski dropped the bombshell without any preliminaries.

Community members are used to getting development proposals in bits and dribbles. Big plan announcements are usually accompanied by sleek presentations and pretty pictures; so they were stunned when Howard Brown in his dry, short and direct way came straight out with his "nuclear option". Nothing less than his intent to demolish the entire mall and all the "pad uses" around it to create a brand-new mixed use town center. "Like downtown Baltimore, just in the County", Brown said. Without reflecting on the decades of storied history of this mall he simply stated:
"Macy's will probably close soon and then Sears will probably follow and then the mall is done.... Time to start a new concept...Retail is dead after 9pm, mixed use town-centers have life 24/7". 
He added something about "5 years of litigation" and that "nobody wanted to be the master developer".  He explained that his development ideas was originally a transit oriented development (TOD) but now without the Red Line it  was "still a TOD just without the rail." He expressed hope he would get all the owners on board. Then he added that he wanted an "expedited development plan" and his lawyer helpfully explained that the current BM-CT zoning is "very flexible" and allows everything that Brown wants "by right", so no re-zoning and no Planned Unit Development (PUD) was necessary.
Howard Brown, David Karceski, David Glick (from left to
right. Photo: Philipsen)

When asked about the schedule and when he wanted to start, Brown said "yesterday". Then he allowed a glimpse into what leads him to believe that he will prevail: A "reciprocal development agreement" that contractually grants shared parking among the five mall owners and which was believed to be valid until 2021 apparently expired in 1997. That's what the five years litigation were about and now "they gave up" Brown said. As a result Macy's and Sears apparently have no right to the plenty parking around the mall any longer and therefore sit on a pretty useless commodity. That is how Brown thinks he will eventually get control of all mall pieces.

"There is no design yet, the first order of business is to strike a deal" Brown responded when somebody asked about the schedule and specifics of the plan. A resident in the audience was incredulous: "You didn't ask Macy's to stay?" she asked after she explained how much residents need a place to shop for their daily needs. Brown responded dryly: "Macy's can't afford to stay, they don't have the money".
One small store owner followed Brown after the meeting, "I just signed a 10 year lease on my store, what will happen to me?". Brown shrugged his shoulders, "I don't know". David Glick assured the woman "we will look out for the existing tenants".
A sea of parking around a failing mall. Anchors lost their right to park.

This is a pretty shrewd approach, but if it gets the result that I have promoted for a long time and didn't dare to expect from this meeting, In my own invitation to this meeting that I had posted on the community website NextDoor I had stated:
If you ever wished that Security Mall was a better destination for shopping and entertainment on par with Towson or Columbia or with Silver Spring, Bethesda or Pentagon City in the DC area, then you should attend the below announced meeting and learn what is planned and ensure that what you like to see actually happens. 
The Security Mall land area is larger than downtown Annapolis and there is very little going on today. It is a colossal waste of space. I am not sure if anything good is planned but if the community stays passive, it isn't likely that something really good will happen. 
This is where the report about the Wednesday meeting pivots into my own take on the matter. Even before Kevin Kamenetz became County Executive in 2010, I badgered him during the campaign with the 1 million square foot, 120 store 6,200 parking space mall which was already languishing then. The death of the American Mall had long begun and real mixed-use town-center redevelopments had already been realized in various places in the country. Not lame turn-the-mall- inside-out "lifestyle centers" like The Avenue at White Marsh, the shops at Hunt Valley or the redo of the Laurel mall but the creation of real streets lined by buildings with retail at the bottom and offices or housing above with public uses and amenities built into the fabric just like in a real downtown or a traditional "main street".
A layout sktech showing the town-center approach with streets and
development blocks like in a real town (Graphic, ZGF Architects, 2005)

I had overlaid an aerial photo of Security Mall on one of downtown Annapolis to make the point how large this mall area really is and how much more is going on in a traditional layout than on the car centric approach.

When the Red Line planning progressed, I told everybody that Security Mall needed a make-over such as Clarendon in Arlington County, a successful mixed use downtown around a WMATA station. I participated in a mini charrette conducted by ZGF architects of Portland, OR in 2005. Then Howard Brown's son-in-law Arthur Adler took part, who was then Brown's VP. But the stars hadn't aligned yet.

One of the design sketches from then started discussing a
Sketch of a possible towncenter entrance seen from Security Boulevard
(Graphic: ZGF Architects, 2005
comprehensive re-build. But the obstacle was always that there were five owners and that none of them wanted to step out and take a big risk. So decline of the mall continued, Southwest Baltimore became a kind of shopping desert (at least for better quality stores) and the Red Line could not point to a high intensity land use near its western terminus, something that would boost ridership much better than the dying mall. What was a lost opportunity at the time as far as viable TOD, is now a real possibility. A dense town center that finally uses all this land effectively is good for economic development, good for the tax base, good for area residents and good the environment by preventing further sprawl retail or similar mixed use centers built on green areas such as Catonsville's proposed  Promenade project.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN article


  1. Metro Centre in Owings mills hasn't won my heart yet. It seems to be something in between a true town centre and "lifestyle center" as you call it. I see they have almost finished demolishing the Owings Mills mall. Would love to see Metro Centre extend into the mall space to create a more walkable downtown. This could be a nice precedent for Security in that it seems to be about 10 years ahead of its cousin to the south.

  2. Owings Mills suffers from disjointed overbuild of retail. Instead of a real town center with everything that the Future Mall successor, Metro Center and Foundry Row have to offer in one place around an attractive open space all three are pushed forward independently, a recipe for failure.