Thursday, July 8, 2021

How the failed Security Square Mall could become a thriving town center

 Death by a thousand cuts

Security Square Mall is one of the dying  malls that dot America from sea to shining sea. But while successful mixed use town center style redevelopments have become success stories and new economic engines, Security Square mall's decline is reaching levels that many had thought unimaginable a few years back, even when the vultures were already circling over the 90 some acres making up the mall. There are at least 3 creepy videos about the mall on YouTube. A recent petition to do something about this malls has garnered 800 signatures. The Reisterstown branch of the NAAPC is forming a working group to figure out what can and should be done. Mall owners fight each other in court.

Security Square Mall: "The  eagle has landed", an isolated, winged object
in the landscape (Google Earth)

The 1 million square foot mall was built in 1972, a winged structure surrounded by a vast sea of asphalt. By comparison: All of historic Fells Point in Baltimore  is comprised of only 75 acres and has 15,000 residents, the new HarborPoint development in Baltimore City rising where the former Allied Signal plant once sat is only 26 acres large, but is planned for 3.0 million sf of development. In short, the 90 acres of the mall represent a very poor use of land.

The mall has been dying when Montgomery Ward became a Seoul Plaza, and when that gave way to a bunch of Asian themed small stores, , and a husband and wife church called "Set the Captives Free" and when Montgomery Wards became a truck driving school.  It died when Sears closed in October 2019, when Old Navy left, when Hechts became Macy's and Macy's tumbled from one reorganization to the next. Today the only recognizable retail names left are Macy's and Burlington. 

COVID has given the dying mall another blow, and yet, the emaciated mall is still pretending to be a viable destination. Still,  there is no practical plan for the future, not even an official vision.

Historically, shopping malls have been isolated, single-use developments that
stand apart from the community. Their exterior presence is typically monolithic
and overscaled, with blank architectural forms that are oriented inward—toward
vast, climate-controlled shopping arcades—and that turn their backs on surrounding neighborhoods. Parking structures and lots accentuate this effect, creating a concrete moat that limits accessibility from beyond the site, except by automobile, and separates the mall from community life. In the 1950s, this was the brave new world of shopping; in the 2000s, it is an anachronism, an artifact of a world that no longer exists. (ULI Mall Paper)

Feuding owners

A sea of asphalt around an empty burg: Security Square Mall
(Photo Philipsen)
Things are so dire that  a witness in the Board of Appeals Case No. CBA-21-008 testified that a recent fire in the vacant former Sears area could not be quickly extinguished, because the successor company couldn't be reached and the firemen had to break in to get to the flames.

The legal case sheds a light on the reasons why no progress has been made with this mall. There are five different owners with very different outlooks.  The owners don't pull in the same direction, more accurately, they are at each others throat. 

The Board of Appeals case is based on one owner wanting to build a "pad use" in form of a WaWa convenience store and gas station and had filed this project under a "planned shopping center" designation which Baltimore County approved, even though this lowest tier development would be the last thing that is needed here. Blocking the edges of the mall property with additional auto oriented uses would cement that status quo as an island and stifle creative, comprehensive new development.

A Greek inspired failing shopping temple
(Photo Philipsen)
Another mall owner, Howard Brown, who developed the Owings Mills Metro Center, filed an appeal to revoke the designation as planned shopping center.  His lawyers argued this designation isn't applicable to this mall. The verdict is still out. 

Howard Brown himself has obtained development approval for two office buildings on the mall property, which would also present an obstacle for a comprehensive redevelopment in conflict with Brown's other idea of turning the ailing mall into a  vibrant town center. At least that is what he announced publicly in a full throated community meeting on a Wednesday night in March of 2017 in Woodlawn, where Councilman Quirk had introduced the developer as a "truly transformative" force. (I wrote about this here). 

"As in most malls, it's time [for it] to be scrapped and it's time to come up with a new concept. You don't have anything in this area. You have suburban apartments, you have retail strips but you don't have an urban center which encompasses all of it. 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" (Howard Brown at the Woodlawn community meeting and as quoted in the SUN).

Brown then also predicted "five years of litigation" but suggested, he would be the winner and come out as the "master developer" for the suggested urban redevelopment that would look "as if it was 

The spooky interior of what used to be the JC Penny store (Mall video)
downtown Baltimore City, [but] located in Baltimore County".  Since then over four years have passed and an end of litigation is not in sight. No further refinements of Brown's redevelopment ideas came to light either.

Mall to mixed use town center: An old hat by now

The idea of scrapping ailing malls and department store studded shopping centers and replacing them with urban, walkable, high density, mixed-use" developments has been realized all across America. These re-developments create "traditional" town-centers with streets, sidewalks and storefronts and restaurants lining a grid of streets interspersed with small open air activity spaces.

Good examples can be found near Washington, for example at Rockville Mall (which was converted to Pike and Rose) and the White Flint conversions in Montgomery County, and on Metro Stations in Arlington County, such as Clarendon

A high intensity "transit oriented development (TOD) had also been the assumption when the Red Line had been designed to terminate in the Social Security Square area, before this rail transit line was killed  by Governor Hogan in 2015. 

Rockville Mall, now Pike and Rose (Photo Philipsen)

Several malls in the Washington area, such as Tysons Galleria and Pentagon City were already conceived in a more urban form from the start and have been substantially upgraded and revised in recent years. 

The issue of dying malls has been so pervasive for so long that as early as 2005 the Urban Land Institute (ULI) convened a high powered expert group  and developed "Ten Principles for Rethinking the Mall". Those princop[les are still applicable today and should be considered when it comes to Security Square Mall:

  1. Grab Your Opportunities or They Will Pass You By
  2. Broaden Your Field of Vision
  3. Unlock the Value of the Land
  4. Let the Market Be Your Guide
  5. Create Consensus
  6. Think Holistically Before Planning the Parts
  7. Connect All the Dots
  8. Design Parking as More Than a Ratio
  9. Deliver a Sense of Community
  10. Stay Alert, Because the Job Is Never Done

Why the future of this land is so vital for the County

The question of hulking Security Square Mall is no trifle matter for the future of the western part of Baltimore County. which in this area is a fairly narrow section hemmed in between Patapsco State Park and Baltimore City, bifurcated by the Beltway.  Many of the county neighborhoods in this western and southwestern area fall into the category of "inner ring suburbs", a planner term for the older suburbs which tend to have been overlooked by investment and subsequently have taken on some of the demographic and economic dynamics of the neighboring core city.

A 2007 sketch showing how the Security Square Mall area could have a
street grid and be a towncenter (ZGF Architects)
"Inner ring" downward trends can include sinking population, higher crime, low performing schools, lower home values, and lack of quality retail. 

These threats have been recognized for some time. Years back the County created revitalization districts  and some serious efforts were made to revive historic "streetcar villages"  such as Catonsville and make them attractive destinations. While the restaurant and music scene in Catonsville has become a success story, and Pikesville offers some attractive retail such as a Borders Bookstore and a Trader Joe's grocery, most westside residents have to do their shopping  for clothes, appliances or quality home accessories in rather distant places such as Columbia, Harbor East or Towson. 

Meanwhile county homebuilders and developers are complaining that they are running out of space to build. A 90 acre dense redevelopment could allow millions of square feet that wouldn't have to happen  on the few remaining farm-fields or in forests inside the urban-rural demarcation line (URDL). In fact, the redevelopment of Security Square Mall into a dense urban center would fit nicely with the original concept of vibrant new town centers which had been conceived when the URDL was first created. White Marsh, Owings Mills and originally also Security Square were the place where development was supoosed to be concentrated in order to save the farms and fields outside the URDL

2007 sketch how a new town center could look as seen from Security Blvd
(ZGF Architects)

But real town centers  don't happen by just waiting for them. They take active planning as the ULI case study of mall redevelopment clearly postulates:

One clear insight that comes from these case studies is the vital role of the local (state, county, or city) government in leading the repurposing effort to
bring back economic activity in the area. The cities and counties in these
case studies have provided public support through infrastructure, financial incentives, and streamlining the process for investors. 

The Security Square mall area is extremely well connected, even though access to I-70 is somewhat cumbersome. It is also a transit hub with several bus routes terminating on the mall area itself. Higher density here would not overwhelm roads or transit, nor would it remove any valuable forest or open spaces. Compact new development would actually improve the enormous storm-water run-off that the totally sealed off area creates today. Just as Clarendon in Arlington County shows, high density development of apartments over top of retail, restaurants and entertainment  could taper down at the edges, so it wouldn't overpower the surrounding low density residential areas. As in Clarendon, the development could surround a public plaza or small park in which events could take place, picnic and outdoor eating in the summer, ice skating in the winter. 

Target, Whole Foods and several other "big box" retailers have developed urban versions of their standard suburban boxy stores, examples  can be seen at the Whole Foods at Harbor East, in Columbia, the Target at Columbia Heights in DC and many other places around the country which feature lower level parking and sometimes two story or upper level stores which can be reached via sloped step-less "escalators" that allow shopping carts to be moved between the levels. In that form even those stores could then be incorporated into a redevelopment.

How Security Square Mall is divided up into
separate properties (Board of Appeals exhibit)

A high density mixed use redevelopment of the 90 acre area of Security Square Mall could also incorporate all current owners as equity partners and provide opportunities for existing retailers to return. The new development would have so much more space to offer, that nobody would have to be displaced and pushed out, except for the truck driving school. 

Per the communities desire, the development could include a community outreach center or other public functions, such as a post office (as in the current mall). The redevelopment could offer housing of a variety that is usually not found in the County, except for Towson, including affordable and accessible housing units which are in extremely short supply in Baltimore County.  

In short, opening up several million square feet of development space would be a great economic development initiative. It would provide jobs during construction and operation, could give a boost to existing communities, create a new destination, offer attractive shopping and dining opportunities, and bolster the County tax coffers. Heck, coming so late to the party, this redevelopment could aim to outdo all those who came before and become a model in sustainability and equity, especially by incorporating local minority owned businesses, the best stormwater management practices, lush vegetation, attractive open spaces and net zero buildings that make their own energy through solar, geothermal or other renewable sources.

The role of government 

At least three past County Administrations missed to act on any of the ULI principles. When asked about Security Mall and its potential as a major transit oriented development during Red Line planning, the late County Executive Kamenetz pointed to the mall as a private matter. It's in the hands of all those owners not government's business he told me. 

Now with equity and climate change as the major agenda items being front and center for all local officials, shrugging the shoulders about the protracted legal mess at Security Square Mall is no longer an option. Nor should it be an option to bring urban mixed use development to the southwest of the County by using green spaces or low density single family housing as proposed by the Promenade development promoted by Whalen properties. That development doesn't have nearly the same connectivity and it would cannibalize the potential of the Security Mall redevelopment. 

The potential of the Security Square Mall property  won't be unlocked without pro-active government involvement, the hard work of achieving a consensus on the desired outcome, figuring out the development partners, the financing and the incentives and decisions needed to make it all work. 

White Flint Mall redevelopment rendering (website)

In many places these type of complex deals are achieved in public- private partnerships for risk sharing and a broader access to funding options. In the case of Owings Mills' Metro Center, the partnership included the State of Maryland and its MTA, the County and the private developer, Howard Brown. MTA owned the surface parking lots of the Metro station that were needed to build the center. Thus, the State offered the land and funded a garage that would replace the lost parking.  Brown built the mixed use structures and the County contributed a library and the Community College branch.

In such a partnership, the initial risk and financial investment is reduced and spread among each group, with the expectation that public investment in a major tenant like a college or library will attract additional mixed-use development. (Maryland Department of Planning)

The Washington area mall redevelopments are architecturally more interesting than Metro Center in Owings Mill. They offer a lot more retail because Metro Center is being cannibalized by two other large retail developments within a 2 mile radius (the old Mall redevelopment with big box retail and the redevelopment of the Solo Cup factory area). This case of uncoordinated an non synergistic investment about which I have written before here and here must be avoided in the southwest area. 

Security Square Mall represents a unique opportunity to get it right by learning from the best of what others did when mall redevelopment was still pioneer work. The promise of a win-win-win for the public, the current owners and the County should make everyone rush to the table. 

Baltimore County government can't sit back any longer just waiting for the mall owners to duke it out. Instead the feuding owners should be forced to come to the table, should they don't see the light by themselves. Options range from citations for all county code violations found on the 90 acres to a development moratorium and, ultimately, the nuclear option, condemnation, if and when life and safety of the public is in peril, as when the fire department couldn't locate an absentee landlord.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The article was corrected for the sequence of changes of store is the mall. Montgomery Ward did not change into a JC Penny but turned into the truck driving school and other uses.