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Jessup Shopping Site Gets a New Owner

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005

A vacant shopping center abandoned by the Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. more than four years ago has a new owner who plans to sink $9 million into renovating and reopening the center by year's end, most likely with an Asian grocery store as its anchor.

Atlantic Realty Companies Inc., based in Vienna, recently acquired the 14-acre site at Routes 1 and 175 in Jessup from Burlington for an undisclosed sum. The developer plans to lease or sell 60 retail units within the existing two buildings, once known as the Eastgate Shopping Center.

The deal marks the most recent attempt to create a vibrant retail climate at a site with a history of retail failures. If the new shopping center thrives, Howard County officials say it could play a central role in turning around the Route 1 corridor, a rundown commercial strip that the county has been working to revitalize for several years.

"This deal puts an important piece of property back into play," said Richard W. Story, chief executive of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Putting that property into play took time. Nearly a half-dozen deals fell through because some potential buyers thought the property was priced too high; others believed it came with too many strings attached, county officials said.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks was the mall's location within the Maryland Food Center, a 400-acre complex made up mostly of food distribution companies. The food center used to own the property the mall now occupies and continues to control the covenants that govern land use at that mall.

Under the covenants, anyone who owned the property had to set aside space for a farmers, flowers or crafts market or a combination of the three, said Donald J. Darnall, executive director of the Maryland Food Center Authority.

The idea was to make sure the mall was compatible with other operations at the food distribution complex, Darnall said. But doing so proved challenging for all the previous owners, including a now-defunct outlet mall development firm that purchased the property from the food center in the mid-1980s, Darnall said.

The outlet mall went out of business in part because strict county laws that curb the use of billboards and signs derailed the mall's advertising effort -- particularly along I-95, where the owners hoped to snag shoppers. "Once the outlets failed, the functions of the farmers market were not carried forth, either," Darnall said.

Then the Burlington Coat Factory, one of the last tenants to move in before the mall's demise, bought the property at a foreclosure sale in 1992, real estate developers said.

Burlington agreed to the farmers market concept, Darnall said. But instead, it used the space to house a wholesaler that sold windows, doors and other building supplies, Darnall said. Burlington shuttered its Jessup store in November 2000 and opened another store at Arundel Mills mall.

Burlington did not respond to several calls seeking comment.

Once Atlantic Realty became interested in the property, it began working with the food center to modify the covenants, said David A. Ross, the firm's president.

Both parties finally agreed to broaden the restrictions so that the owners are not limited to a farmers market concept. Instead, they must provide services and stores that the 4,000 food center employees can use daily, such as restaurants or dry cleaners, Ross said.

Atlantic Realty will determine what the exact uses should be once it gets the results of an employee survey it is conducting.

"We want to provide amenities that the employees would find interesting," Ross said. "There are pieces of the property that lend themselves nicely to providing day care, a kids' gymnastics center or an indoor baseball training facility, given the amount of land we have."

But to succeed, the mall also must attract shoppers from nearby areas, Ross said. Working in its favor is its proximity to I-95, Columbia Town Center and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, he said.

Atlantic Realty hopes to appeal to a wide range of shoppers by bringing an Asian grocery store, specialty shops and wholesalers for cabinets, flooring and other goods, Ross said. The developer also hopes its low rents will lure some retailers away from their current locations. "We acquired the property at an affordable price," Ross said. "So our rent will be less than the typical retail center in Columbia."

Construction at the site begins in May. Atlantic Realty will start by repairing roofs, parking spaces and electrical systems. It also plans to redo the facade and landscape.

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