Leaders in West Baltimore are envisioning how a new community center at the Mondawmin Mall could serve surrounding neighborhoods, and they’re reimagining how the historic mall interacts with area residents.
Whiting Turner CEO Tim Regan recently purchased the years-empty anchor building at 3201 Tioga Parkway, which formerly housed a much-valued Target store, and plans to open a new community “hub.”
Rather than home goods, clothing and electronics, the empty Target shell could soon house a job training and career development center, a business incubator for Black entrepreneurs and a food hall with healthy menu options.
“Give me a town gathering place, where people can develop skills for livable wages, where I can be entertained, where I can take someone to,” said Pastor Frank Lance of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church. “The same thing any community deserves and desires.”
Lance was one of several neighborhood leaders who participated in recent meetings with Regan to discuss potential uses for the space.
“This space presents a unique opportunity for Mondawmin residents to shape the future of their amazing neighborhood,” Regan said in a statement following the purchase earlier this month. “I firmly believe the Mondawmin area is on the cusp of a renaissance, and I’m hopeful this investment in the mall area will spur additional investment throughout the larger community.”
The purchase is reinvigorating talks about the importance of the mall and comes after the retailer’s departure, which has been mourned by many.
“When (Target) came, we welcomed it, because it was something that we truly wanted to see in the neighborhood,” said Adeline Wheless-Hutchinson, president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council. “But then after it left, it took employment opportunities with it. There’s just been that empty hole there for a while.”
Target closed in 2018, a significant blow to neighbors who relied on the store for easy access to consumer goods. More than 100 jobs were lost. Target cited “years of decreasing profitability” for its 2017 decision to close the Mondawmin location, one of a dozen closures at the time.
“In Greater Mondawmin, you can go from elementary school to a graduate degree and never have to leave. We have two of the busiest metro stops in Baltimore City. We buttress Druid Hill Park, the biggest park in Baltimore City. We deserved a Target, a big box store.” Lance said. “To have it close, it actually said to us that we don’t value your community. We don’t think you’re worthy of it. We don’t support you enough.”
“What I tell people in my district is the Target may have left, but the people are still here, and the greatest resource is our people,” Councilman James Torrence said.
Community input is not just ‘window dressing’
Regan, who cofounded the nonprofit TouchPoint Baltimore in 2015 following the civil unrest after the police killing of Freddie Gray, purchased the 127,000 sq ft. building for $1 million to build out TouchPoint’s existing work in the community, provide services to area residents and help revitalize the mall.
Part of the reason there aren’t concrete plans for what the community center will offer is because Regan is hosting a series of meetings with stakeholders and neighborhood leaders in order to best assess how the new hub can be of service to neighbors.
“Normally when someone purchases property, (they) already have in mind exactly what they want to do. Let’s be honest, they’ve got a prospectus; they’ve looked at the books; they’ve run the numbers. Any community input is just window dressing,” Lance said. “That’s not what Tim has done here.”
Instead, Regan has committed to a multimillion-dollar investment in the property based on the forthcoming community input, but he does plan to house TouchPoint at the new location and for Whiting Turner to open a “midtown” office.
“The fact that we don’t have a detailed proposal right now, speaks to the fact that Tim and community partners are planning on a community engagement process, so that this space is more responsive to the needs of the neighborhood,” said Auchentoroly Terrae resident Coreil-Allen. “It’s creatively reimagining how a mixed-use center like the mall can serve a neighborhood like Greater Mondawmin, and that’s going to mean it’s going to be something different than what we’ve seen in the past.”
Regan is looking to engage with the existing Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council and other community groups and leaders to shape what services the new hub could offer. Hutchinson’s council works with several member neighborhood associations to unify efforts to improve all the neighborhoods surrounding the mall.
Hutchinson is working with each of the eight-member groups’ presidents to make sure the new community hub makes it on the agenda for upcoming neighborhood association meetings so residents can be involved in the process.
“He wants to make sure that it’s a community hub. It’s not a one-person-is-speaking hub,” she said.
The new facility will usher in a new chapter in the history of the Mondawmin Mall site.
Designed and opened by James Rouse and the Rouse Company in 1956, Mondawmin is viewed as an early prototype for the contemporary American mall, according to historic preservationist Jackson Gilman-Forlini.
Mondawmin was an important evolutionary link from the strip mall to the covered complexes that dotted the American suburban landscape in the second half of the 20th century.
“Prior to the 1950s, most Baltimore consumers would go down to the Howard Street corridor to do their shopping, and that ended after World War II when a lot of the middle class moved to the suburbs,” Gilman-Forlini said. “What Mondawmin was trying to do was siphon business away from both ends of that.
“They were trying to attract people who were shopping downtown into more of a suburban shopping experience, and also trying to draw people from the suburbs a little closer into the city.”
That philosophy explains how a suburban-style Mondawmin Mall surrounded by parking lots to accommodate the automobile ended up situated in the heart of West Baltimore.
And unlike most American suburban malls, the history of Mondawmin more closely follows the urban history of the mid-20th century, and its decline preceded that of the suburban-style mall by decades.
Driving suburbanites – literally – back to the city
Rouse also developed other significant shopping attractions in Baltimore: Harborplace in the Inner Harbor, which is currently experiencing its own revitalization effort in the wake of years of decline; and Cross Keys, a prototype for the planned suburban development of Colombia, Maryland.
“Fundamental to Rouse’s philosophy of development was a return to urbanism. That was also a part of the inspiration for Harborplace, making cities fun again, trying to make cities a place that were lively, and bring suburbanites back into urban cores, reinventing what a city was,” Gilman-Forlini said.
The development of Mondawmin Mall was the genesis for driving – literally – suburbanites back to the city, he said.
Even as it declined from its 20th century heyday, its legacy is ongoing for residents in Baltimore.
“The mall has made a great impact on the community. It gives individuals shopping locations, and it’s nearby, and you have a supermarket here as well,” Hutchinson said.
And while it’s surrounded my parking spaces, many patrons value that it’s in walking distance from neighboring communities with easy transit access via the Mondawmin Metro stop and transit center.
Residents are looking beyond the community hub as they envision a brighter Greater Mondawmin.
Chase Bank will add a new branch to Mondawmin Mall, after receiving federal approval. Coreil-Allen said community meetings with representatives from Chase indicate that the bank is working to “really empower the financial needs of African American residents.”
The city earlier this month also applied to again designate the community as an Enterprise Zone Focus Area. This state program provides tax credits to expanding and incoming businesses.
The goal is to increase opportunities for revitalization, property rehabilitation and job creation in underutilized areas in the city.
A focus on surrounding properties
“There still needs to be investment in the housing stock,” Torrence said of properties surrounding the mall. “If we’re able to spur investment in the nine neighboring communities, we’re going to attract more stores, but also it’s an investment in people.”
Torrence praised Mayor Brandon Scott’s work to invest more in housing incentives and Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore’s efforts to rehab homes around the mall.
“Surrounding the mall has a large number of middle-class Black families, so we have to invest in those families.” he said. “A lot of my work has been geared towards making sure our legacy residents can stay and not be displaced, but also live in place.”
Coreil-Allen agrees, hoping the new hub will serve as a catalyst for reimagining what’s possible with the mall property as the community looks to draw in new neighbors and providing more affordable options to existing residents.
He pointed to Metro Heights across the street, which provides affordable housing options for a range of income levels, and hopes to one day see the types of mixed-use space found elsewhere in the city with shops on the ground floor, and housing on the upper floors.
“When I look at the mall, I see we have an amazing hybrid indoor Main Street surrounded by 4,000 parking spaces,” he said. “What if those parking spaces were filled with affordable apartments? More neighbors could afford to live here, that would be an even stronger retail market for all the businesses inside and on the edge of the mall.”