After living in Baltimore’s Village of Cross Keys for 30 years, Marjorie Goodman says, she was seriously considering moving out because she felt the community isn’t what it used to be.
But after hearing prospective buyer Arsh Mirmiran outline his vision for revitalizing the community with new apartments, offices, a grocery store and a gym, among other changes, she has decided to stay.
“I’m so grateful that you’ve come in,” she told the developer at a community meeting last night. “You’re beyond our wildest dreams…This is wonderful. “
Because of Mirmiran and his ideas she has changed her mind about moving, she said at the end of the meeting.
“Now I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I have renewed hope.”
Goodman was one of nearly 100 Roland Park and Cross Keys residents who filed into the basement of Roland Park Presbyterian Church to learn about possible changes to the Village of Cross Keys if Mirmiran, a partner of Caves Valley Partners, is able to purchase key portions of it.
The 90-minute briefing, part of the monthly meeting of the Roland Park Civic League, was one of the first times Mirmiran has acknowledged that he has a contract to acquire the retail and office portions of the mixed-use community at 5100 Falls Road from its current owner, the New York City-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp.
Located between Cold Spring Lane and Northern Parkway, Cross Keys was built starting in the 1960s by legendary developer James Rouse of The Rouse Company and served as a prototype for Rouse’s even larger planned community, Columbia, Maryland.
Mirmiran told the audience that he negotiated the sale contract with Ashkenazy last fall and has a short time to move ahead with the purchase. He said the property under contract includes Village Square I and II with all of its retail space and common areas, all the office space, the Quadrangle building, the tennis barn, the structure that contains Williams-Sonoma, a parking deck and several surface lots, including land near the Poly and Western high schools
Mirmiran did not disclose a purchase price or give a figure for how much Caves Valley would invest for improvements. He said the acquisition does not include the hotel at Cross Keys, which is owned by a Canadian group and operates under the Delta Hotels by Marriott flag. It also does not include nearly 700 residential units within the community. If he is successful, he said, the portion now owned by Ashkenazy would change hands by early spring.
Mirmiran said his vision involves adding a five- to six-story apartment building with 300 to 350 units, an office building, a 20,000 to 25,000 square foot grocery store, one or two restaurants, a gym or fitness center, a hair salon or spa, and other retailers, and structured parking. He said he also wants to upgrade the gatehouse on Falls Road, reconfigure the entrance sequence, and improve the common areas.
The developer said he believes there is a market for upscale apartments in North Baltimore, based in part on the success of the recently-opened Icon apartments at the Rotunda, which has a waiting list. He said he is confident the retail portion has the potential to be revitalized in the same way that the retail area of Green Spring Station has been upgraded in Baltimore County. His vision is to operate the retail component as a “high-end, local, boutique” project.
“Look at Green Spring Station,” he said. “Green Spring Station is thriving right now because they put effort into it and they brought in a good tenant mix and they created a nice environment there and people go there.”
Mirmiran said his vision would require amendments to the Planned Unit Development zoning legislation that currently governs what can be built on the property, and that means Caves Valley’s plans will need approval from the mayor and the City Council.
He said any changes also would require approval from three community groups that legally have a say over what happens at Cross Keys because of certain restrictive covenants: the Roland Park Civic League, the Cross Keys Maintenance Corp., and the Baltimore Country Club. He explained that he is starting to meet with community groups and elected officials as part of his effort to determine whether there is support for what he wants to do.
Mirmiran explained that Ashkenazy did not have the property on the market when he approached the company– it is not known for selling its real estate — and is not “an eager seller” in this case. He said he believes Caves Valley can recoup its investment and more if it can make improvements that increase the value of Cross Keys.
“To be frank, we’re overpaying for the property, if you just take the property as is,” he said. “However, we believe that there is an upside to the property,” if portions of it, such as the tennis barn, can be redeveloped. He said that Caves Valley would be the developer and owner of the improvements to the retail and office space and would become partners with a “regional or national developer” to build the apartments.
Speaking without any site plans or renderings, Mirmiran said his vision includes:
New apartments near where the tennis barn is now: “The biggest thing that we’re proposing is an apartment building, a high-end rental apartment building,” he said. “Right now the design is 318 units, but it would be between 300 and 350 units. It would be five or six stories. It would be self-contained in terms of parking, well amenitized, well designed.”
A grocery store: A 20,000 to 25,000 square foot grocery store, either a “specialized grocery store” or a “small footprint grocer” carrying a full line of groceries, including produce, meat, and dry goods.“ Without naming names, he said “we think we have a grocer who would go in there. It’s a 22,000-square-foot, organic, produce-focused grocer.”
As for location, “we’re looking at simply carving it into Village Square on one of the ends,” he said. “There is some possibility that we would put it where Williams-Sonoma is and then move Williams-Sonoma within the property,” or putting it in front of the parking deck near Williams-Sonoma. “The thought is, it would be nice to have some kind of draw to bring people into Cross Keys on a regular basis, to go and support the rest of the retail,” he said.
Upgrades to the Village Square: Mirmiran pointed to Green Spring Station as the model for the way he wants to revitalize the open-air courtyard and shops. “We would hopefully bring one or two restaurants like Donna’s, which was there, or Tark’s Grill, which is up at Green Spring Station.” He said he is looking for restaurants that would have outdoor seating and would be complementary with the Village Square Café, to provide “a couple of other dining options” in the area.
Mirmiran also said he would like to bring in a gym or fitness facility that would give people another reason to come to Cross Keys on a regular basis, and a hair salon or spa. He said the final location of the grocery store will help determine the layout for other tenants.
New office building: After existing office space is “stabilized,” Mirmiran said, Caves Valley would like to construct another office building with a landscaped courtyard in place of a surface lot near the Quadrangle building. He did not say how large the new office building might be. He said this is a long-term project that would only move ahead if everything else was going well and “the demand was there.”
Upgrades to the Gatehouse and entrance sequence on Falls Road: Mirmiran said Ashkenazy has already committed to paying for some improvements to the Gatehouse, and Caves Valley would work to “bring that to fruition” if the sale occurs.
As for vehicular access, “the traffic patterns in and out of there right now are questionable at best,” he said. “I think we could clean that up nicely and make it a lot more easy for residents, office tenants and visitors to get in and out of Cross Keys and sort of improve that look and make that Falls Road access better.”
If the office building materializes, he said. Caves Valley may beef up the southernmost entrance to Cross Keys and make that more of a dedicated entrance to the Quadrangle building and other destinations on the south side of Cross Keys.
Timing: Mirmiran said the property has been under contract for two months and Caves Valley has a “very limited study period” to decide whether to move ahead. “In an ideal world,” he said, Caves Valley would complete the sale in the first quarter of 2020, and then move ahead with more detailed design work and the process of applying for zoning changes and other approvals.
Mirmiran said Caves Valley would control the timing on changes to the retail and office space and public areas, and the apartments would be on a separate timetable set by both Caves Valley and the development partner it brings in. He said he is aiming to start construction on initial phases of the project, including the retail space, by next winter or spring, and hopes to start construction on the apartment building by the spring of 2022. He promised to hold monthly meetings with community residents to report on the project’s status.
Asked about the status of current retailers at Cross Keys, Mirmiran said wants to work with them.
“There are no tenants in Cross Keys that we don’t think are a fit,” he said. “We think the tenant mix that’s there is great…We think that if we support them properly and we bring in more businesses that become a draw to Cross Keys and make Cross Keys kind of fun for people going forward, that those businesses will once again thrive.”
He likened the process to Caves Valley’s renovation of Cross Street Market, another property that already had tenants when his company stepped in. “I think there are a lot of similarities between what we did down at Cross Street Market and what we’re proposing to do here at Cross Keys,” he said.
During his presentation, Mirmiran explained how he became interested in acquiring Cross Keys. He said his mother-in-law moved from California to Baltimore and bought a condominium in the Hamill Court section of Cross Keys. In the process of visiting her, he said, he began to see how Cross Keys had changed from the way he remembered it when he was young and started thinking about ways it could be upgraded.
“I thought to myself, and I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, this would be a big undertaking but it’s something I would like to do.”
Mirmiran said he initially suggested the idea of becoming a partner with Ashkenazy and serving as the “local developer,” but ultimately reached a contract to acquire 100 percent of what Ashkenazy controls.
Reaction to the plan was overwhelmingly positive.
Two leaders from Cross Keys, Hal Hathaway, president of the Cross Keys Maintenance Corp., and Julie Cahan, president of the Hamill Court condominium association, told the audience their boards support the prospective buyers and their plans. Hathaway said the hotel owners also support a change in ownership.
“The residents of Cross Keys can only benefit” from what Caves Valley is proposing, he said. “Caves Valley can only be a better marriage for us.”
Cahan, who is a realtor, said she thinks a change of owners would make the community more appealing to prospective buyers and help convince them that it’s a good place to live. “We really need it,” she said. “It’s really a matter of survival for Cross Keys.”
Audience members had a few suggestions for Caves Valley, such as maintaining good landscaping and high-quality design, promoting walkability over vehicles, and nurturing wildlife such as foxes and owls. One woman said she would like to see more diversity of merchants, and asked how many African American-owned businesses are there today. Another woman suggested adding a “dog run.”
Developer and Roland Park resident David Tufaro noted that Rouse’s vision for Cross Keys was to bring in local, one-of-a-kind merchants, not chain stores, and that helped set the retail area apart from other shopping centers. “Cross Keys is a real gem, no question about it,” he said. “How do we bring it back?”
Mirmiran said he is fully aware of the community’s significance to Baltimore and hopes to build on what Rouse started. He noted that his vision is similar in many ways to Rouse’s master plan for Cross Keys, which also called for more residential towers, another parking deck and another office building.
“If you go back to the original master plan,” he said, “it’s not that far off.”