A perspective on the small area planning process for the once glittering row of retail real estate
While the value of Gold has been soaring the last several years, the commercial real estate values of the Golden Mile continue to plunge. Much has changed since the early 1990″s when the west end of Frederick City, Maryland was touted as the county”s retail hub.
Built in 1972, the Frederick Towne Mall became the anchor of this 1.8 mile stretch of West Patrick Street from the U.S. 15 overpass westward to the still famous giant candy cane of the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant.
A 1990 Frederick Magazine article entitled From Farmlands to Shopping Centers, boasted: “What makes the Golden Mile special is that it”s got something for everyone.” Long time commercial real estate professional Marybeth Visco was quoted saying: “It”s a hot area and it”s always going to be hot.”
That was then…
By the end of the decade, that gold began to lose its luster with the closing of several established retailers. While some of the vacancies filled with new merchants, a sense of emptiness lingered as the Francis Scott Key Mall to the south at Evergreen Point finally came into being flanked by several “Big Box” stores.
Today, according to the businesses and residents who answered a survey conducted by the Frederick City Planning office as it embarked on a mission to find a solution to revitalize the dying area in early 2010.
Concerns over the increased concentration of crime, visual appearance of vacant properties, along with traffic and pedestrian safety in the area ranked high.
The once illustrious Frederick Towne Mall today would be more appropriately named the Ghost Towne Mall, as it sits almost completely vacant awaiting notice of its demolition day.
Just last week the Giant Food officials announced the closing of its Westridge Square Center location on West Patrick Street, claiming that the store was “underperforming.”
A vision to polish up some tired commercial real estate
As stated above, the City planning staff kicked off a strong initiative using the small area planning process to develop some ideas and an action plan to put some shine back into this tarnished area. This kind of effort is a natural extension of the city”s comprehensive planning work, which has been headed by Nick Colonna, the manager of the program.
Since March of 2010, under Mr. Colonna”s oversight, the City staff has conducted a number of surveys and held public workshops with presentations to garner “stakeholder” feedback.
After many dedicated hours and significant local participation, the results were presented to the .
The Vision developed by the effort highlighted 5 key components:
- High Quality Architecture
- Pedestrian Friendly Environment
- Variety of Parks and Open Spaces
- Promote a Mixture of Uses
- Promote Safety
Two alternatives were established.
Site analysis alternative one proposes to keep the current layout, focus on upgrading existing facades and encourage higher end retail uses. Other priorities are to improve vehicular and pedestrian conflicts, as well as connections to shared use pathways. It also suggests improved safety.
The second alternate puts strong focus on a long term plan to develop a series of parallel roads to U.S. 40 which would become a “new main” street for the area. Some of these roads would be required to run through the parking lots of existing retail shopping centers, such as Frederick County Square, Westridge Square Center, Willowdale Shopping, and Frederick Shopper’s World.
Within these newly formed blocks, the focus would be on providing for the development of multi-storied buildings with a mixed use concentration of retail and offices.
From this commercial real estate broker”s perspective, it has some exciting components for the long term … but, what is missing at the front end of this plan?
It seemed clear that the Aldermen saw the vision as very interesting and somewhat exciting; however, undertones of concern came through.
Alderman Shelley Aloi raised an essential question by asking if the actual property owners of the retail centers had been invited to be a part of this planning process.
Surprisingly the response was “Not yet.” Mr. Colonna responded that he wanted to get “further down the road” with a more solid plan.
Ms. Aloi encouraged staff to work with the owners to get early buy-in so as to avoid potential regulatory enforcement conflicts and “eminent domain issues.”
The point I heard from this conversation was a classic question of whether this planning process has truly been comprehensive thus far.
Why not ask the existing retail and business center real estate owners who have the largest financial investment in the Golden Mile to be part of the plan?
Their experience in similar retail projects throughout the region could provide valuable insight in developing a successful vision… and if asked what would their greatest current concern?
Does one put a new suit on a patient before he is cured of his illness?
The survey data overwhelmingly showed Crime and Safety as the number one concern across the board of all stakeholders. The owners” opinion would be no different. Right or wrong, perception and reality are pretty close on this point.
From my perspective the very first phase of the “vision” should be to get this issue under better control.
If there is any one thing that has driven consumers away from the once “Golden” Mile, it has to be the matter of personal safety. Of course beyond safety there are any number of issues that have likely contributed to the decline in the retail appeal: economic pressures, a shift in consumer interests, a change in the demographics in the immediate area, increased competition from local and regional retailers and e-commerce to name a few.
When consumer dollars go elsewhere, business revenues drop, leading to lost jobs, business failures or relocation away from the area. That means vacancies that force property owners to reduce rents in an attempt to fill space. Low revenue expectations and reduced rents in a high crime area attract a lesser quality of business type.
Concentrated efforts and great strides have been made by local law enforcement along the Golden Mile, but what other kind of support do they believe is needed to bring about a truly dynamic change?
Please consider how a major investment in generating a safe environment at the once mighty economic engine of the Golden Mile will do more to return the luster of the area than any other plan. It”s a critical first step, and an investment that will pay major dividends back to the city coffers.
The day prior to the posting of this article Nick Colonna and his director Joe Adkins and I have exchanged several email over an advanced copy that I sent to them.
Colonna expressed that he got the impression that I implied that staff had downplayed the importance of the retail center owners and the matter of crime:
“My response at the Workshop regarding the property owners was that we have not been able to have a direct sit down with every property owner but staff will improve on upon our outreach initiatives even further once we solidified a draft of the plan…
“The concerns you mention …[are] exactly what is to be addressed as part of implementation of a small area plan. An area this large, with a variety of challenges needs a starting point for the improvements sought for the GM. Much of what you mention will be part of the draft as it unfolds in the coming months … thanks you for your insight.”
My concerns were not that staff did not recognize these issues as important, but suggest that they are key components to be used in the very early stages of crafting of the vision. So it appears that this could be a chicken/egg debate over what comes first …
Our exchanges ended on a positive note to share furher thoughts as this process unfolds.
In a future posts on the Golden Mile, I hope to spend some time with Colonna and Adkins to take a look deeper at the strategic process involved in finalizing the vision of this small area plan.
The author: Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for TheTentacle.com where this article also appears.