Courtesy of Caves Valley Partners.

After 16 years of out-of-town ownership, The Village of Cross Keys is back in local hands.

“Time to Unlock the Potential,” says a blue and white sign next to the front gatehouse, bearing a giant key similar to ones on the Cross Keys logo. “Now Under Local Ownership. Caves Valley Partners.”

More than two years after it first expressed interest, Caves Valley Partners completed its acquisition of the commercial assets of Cross Keys yesterday and immediately disclosed plans to upgrade and expand the mixed-use community at 5100 Falls Road.

The seller was Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. of New York City and the price was $27 million, including the assumption of a loan on which the seller owed about $20 million. The purchase includes about 290,000 square feet of retail and office space, plus common areas and developable land.

Caves Valley principal Arsh Mirmiran estimated that his company will spend between $150 million and $175 million over the next five to seven years to improve and add onto portions of the community, which was started in the 1960s by developer James Rouse and served as a prototype for the planned community of Columbia.

He said Caves Valley is even working with a former Rouse Company executive, architect Laurin B. “Monk” Askew, to “dig into some of the history” of Cross Keys to make sure the changes they’re proposing are consistent with Rouse’s vision.

“Our intention is to take Cross Keys back to its heyday, hopefully, and then some,” Mirmiran said. “To take Jim Rouse’s original vision and complete it.”

Before the Rouse Company acquired it, the land now occupied by The Village of Cross Keys was owned by the Baltimore Country Club, which ceased using it as a golf course in the early 1960s.

Developed by Rouse in phases, Cross Keys became a well-known destination for shopping and dining, and a popular place to live. Tenants included Octavia, The Store Ltd., and The Pied Piper (children’s clothes), which are still there; The Roost; Cross Keys Deli; Ruth Shaw; George Howard (menswear) and Joanna Gray (shoes).

Residents included Oprah Winfrey, when she worked for WJZ-TV, and former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes. Visiting major league sports teams frequently stayed at the hotel on the property, then known as the Cross Keys Inn, when they played the Orioles and Colts. There’s even a building by the noted architect Frank Gehry, the Harper House condominiums.

The Rouse Company owned and managed Cross Keys until 2004, when both the company and its real estate portfolio were acquired by General Growth Properties, a national shopping center developer then based in Chicago.

In 2012, General Growth sold its portion of Cross Keys to Ashkenazy, which has collected a series of “trophy” retail properties such as Harborplace in Baltimore and Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, but hasn’t always invested to keep them in top shape.

Mirmiran said he grew up going to Cross Keys as a patron and became interested in acquiring it after his mother-in-law bought a second home there. After she moved to Baltimore, he said, he spent more time at Cross Keys and noticed the community had declined from the way he remembered it.

The property wasn’t on the market, but Mirmiran said he saw potential to improve it in a way that’s consistent with Rouse’s original vision and approached the owners.

“I personally live four minutes away from Cross Keys,” he said. “My partners and I grew up going there and all have really fond memories of the place and what it used to be. We have a vision to bring it back to that level and really make Cross Keys one of the premier properties in Baltimore once again.”

He said the key to improving Cross Keys is realizing that it’s not a cookie-cutter development that can be managed from a distance.

“I think it was challenging over the last almost-20 years for out-of-town owners, General Growth and Ashkenazy, to fully understand what the local community is looking for and to deliver,” he said. “I don’t think it was through any fault of their own. I just think it’s a very, very unique boutique property that, unless you’ve experienced it yourself, it’s difficult to properly recreate what was there.”

Caves Valley is wasting no time in moving ahead with efforts to make physical changes and fill vacancies.

Mirmiran said he has a meeting tomorrow with Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel to present his company’s master plan for the community and get feedback from panel members.

Besides Askew, who was vice president and director of design at the Rouse Company from 1969 to 1999, Caves Valley is working with Design Collective of Baltimore as the lead architect; Chesapeake Contracting Group for construction; AO Retail for retail leasing; MacKenzie for office leasing and property management; and Kimley-Horn as the civil engineer.

Mirmiran is also working with the Baltimore City Council to introduce a bill to “repeal and replace” the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning legislation that dictates what can be built at Cross Keys. That bill, he said, may be introduced as soon as Monday.

While the sale covers the retail and office portions of the mixed-use community, it does not include the separately-owned hotel, now a Delta by Marriott, or nearly 700 residences on the property.

As of yesterday, Caves Valley owns Village Square I and II and all of its retail space and common areas; all of the office space; the Quadrangle building; the tennis barn; the structure that contains Williams-Sonoma; a parking deck and several surface parking lots; and land near Poly and Western high schools.

Besides upgrading existing buildings, Caves Valley has been exploring plans to add 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; other retailers; and structured parking.

The new owners also want to upgrade the gatehouse on Falls Road, reconfigure the main entrance, beef up the southernmost entrance and improve common areas.

Mirmiran said Caves Valley is in a position to move quickly now because it has been making plans while the sale was pending and they were arranging financing. He said the transaction involved private investor equity and the assumption of the $20 million loan to Ashkenazy. Caves Valley has no plans to seek public financial assistance, he said.

“We delayed the closing somewhat because of the COVID situation. And then we had one extension,” he said. “But we’ve been working all along as we worked through the process of assuming the…loan.”

Mirmiran said one of the biggest changes will be the apartment building, which is expected to cost $100 million and be complete within three years. The site for the residential project, he noted, is a parcel where the Rouse Company contemplated constructing two buildings.

Mirmiran previously told community members that Caves Valley intends to work on that phase of the project with a partner who specializes in residential development. He said yesterday that Caves Valley has not yet selected that partner and that a new office building would likely be completed within five to seven years.

Asked what changes visitors and residents will see first, he said Caves Valley wants to address “deferred maintenance” items left by the previous owners.

“The first things that people will see are deficiencies that have not been addressed over the last several years,” he said. “Anywhere there’s spalling concrete. Anywhere the soffits are damaged. Anywhere there’s rust that’s visible, some of the mechanical units, the elevators. There are a lot of deferred maintenance items that have lingered. We will go after those right away.”

The goal, he said, is to address those items by the end of this year. “And then, spring is when you’ll start to see some real changes to the property. That’s the general time frame. The aesthetic changes and the upgrades are more likely to start in the spring and run through 2021.”

Mirmiran said he’s also interested in finding appropriate homes for some of the original sculptures and other artwork at Cross Keys, and that’s where Askew comes in.

“There’s a sculpture dedicated to Jim Rouse, which we’ll try to find a prominent place” for, he said. “I’ve been trying to study the history of some of the artifacts, the art and the sculptures that are in the courtyard… I’ve asked Monk to help me out, to dig into some of the history of what all the different pieces are so that we can put them in the proper places and celebrate them and make them part of the future” of Cross Keys.

Mirmiran pledged to meet regularly with local community groups to keep residents informed about Caves Valley’s progress.

He said he believes Rouse left a strong vision to build on, especially at a time when the need for social distancing makes livable outdoor spaces more critical than ever.

“Jim Rouse was a true visionary and was decades ahead of others in his thinking,” he said. “The California feel of Cross Keys has endured the test of time, and we couldn’t have designed a better layout today for a post-COVID world.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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