Mall's Comedown Taints Lerner Image

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006; B01

After being named owner-to-be of the Washington Nationals, Theodore N. Lerner proclaimed that the team and the new ballpark in Southeast would be his legacy, the capstone in a long, distinguished career as one of the region's most influential builders.

Tysons Corner Center in Fairfax County, White Flint Mall in Montgomery County and Dulles Town Center in Loudoun County are a few of the projects on which the 80-year-old Bethesda developer has made his reputation.

But in Prince George's County, Lerner's legacy is clouded by the fate of the Landover Mall, a once-thriving retail destination whose long, slow decline was punctuated when it was shuttered in 2002. Built and owned by Lerner Enterprises, the complex -- on a 110-acre site just inside the Capital Beltway, near the Washington Redskins' FedEx Field -- has sat dark and empty for four years, with the exception of a Sears store that remains open. The marquee is covered in sheets, the grass is calf-high and the vast parking lot is used for overflow football crowds.

Some Prince George's civic activists and the administration of former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D) have charged that the project symbolizes the broad neglect of the predominantly black county by major developers and retailers.

"When I look at the news and read stories, everyone fawns over what a great man he is," said Arthur A. Turner Jr., an activist from the nearby Kettering neighborhood who has lobbied county leaders to seize the property through eminent domain. "But the baggage and ghost of Landover Mall still negatively impact us today. He's a failure in Prince George's County."

Curry, who was county executive from 1994 to 2002, complained that Lerner invested heavily in his malls in other jurisdictions but failed to reinvest in Landover Mall after it opened in 1972.

Other county residents and the administration of current County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) have been more tempered, saying they hope the Lerner company will redevelop the site. They say Lerner could ride the momentum created by several new projects, including the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, featuring the Magic Johnson movie theaters, and the Woodmore Town Centre, which will include a Wegmans grocery store.

Alan H. Gottlieb, chief operating officer of Lerner Enterprises, said company officials have met a half-dozen times with Prince George's leaders in the past year.

"We listened to their vision for the site and spoke of our desire to build a great project," Gottlieb said in an e-mail. "We discussed potential uses and shared information to create the foundation for a working partnership with the county."

Gottlieb added that Lerner Enterprises has made significant investment in Prince George's beyond Landover Mall: The company owns the Greenbelt Marriott and helped build 3,000 apartment units in the county.

Landover Mall opened when Prince George's was still a predominantly white county. A regional attraction, the mall featured high-end department stores, a movie theater and an ice cream shop.

But when anchor stores Garfinckel's, Raleighs and Woodward & Lothrop went out of business, the mall began to decline. The Gap moved out, and the Dollar Store moved in. Meanwhile, the county was changing, too, becoming predominantly African American, with a higher level of affluence outside the Capital Beltway but growing social problems.

The rocky relationship between Lerner and Prince George's hit bottom in 1997 when mall managers complained in a letter to then-county executive Curry that bottlenecks caused by Redskins game-day traffic were hurting sales.

Curry fired back his own letter, noting that the Lerner company made major capital improvements at its other retail projects, including White Flint.

"Regrettably, I am unaware of similar marketing activities or capital investment at Landover Mall, despite the fact that it is located in one of the more affluent and diverse jurisdictions in the nation," Curry wrote.

Lerner representatives have pointed out that the mall's anchors operated under independent ownership, making it difficult for the company to mandate significant changes. When Garfinckel's closed in 1989, for example, it was never replaced.

Theresa Dudley, an activist from Landover, argued that county and state leaders failed to give Lerner the same economic incentives and assistance they gave to sports team owners Abe Pollin and Jack Kent Cooke, who built stadiums in Prince George's.

"Everyone wants Lerner to fork over money and fix up the mall, but he initially invested quite a bit of money," Dudley said. "Now everyone's saying it's Lerner's fault because he did not do anything. Why not give him the same deal as Pollin?"

William D. "Billy" Miller Jr., a former economic adviser to Curry, recalled meeting with Lerner representatives after Curry took office.

"If Lerner had a strategy for revitalizing or recasting that valuable property, we would have figured out ways we could help," Miller said. "The state was giving away $73 million for infrastructure for the stadium, but the proposals we saw [from Lerner] were only cosmetic."

In January, workers hired by Lerner Enterprises began tearing down Landover Mall. Last week, excavators dug into rubble from the steel-and-concrete frame, a Garfinckel's sign still mounted on one wing. The company is razing the building to save money on the sprinkler and heating systems required by county fire code, Gottlieb said.

County Council member David Harrington (D-Cheverly), who represents the district that includes the mall, said Lerner representatives have generally expressed a desire to build housing on the site even though the county would like to pursue a mixed-use project with retail and office space.

"We're going back and forth," Harrington said. "The Lerners could be a bit quicker to the table, but I wouldn't describe them as being resistant."

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