By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009
The Boulevard at the Capital Centre in Landover was envisioned as a solidly middle-class, Main Street-style mall: a lure to help Prince George's County keep its residents from fleeing to Montgomery County, Anne Arundel County and Northern Virginia to find anything more than T-shirts and tennis shoes.
The site used to rock a few nights each week as crowds flocked to the old Capital Centre to cheer on sports teams. And local leaders thought the wealthiest majority-black county in the nation deserved at least mid-range stores to go with the fancy neighborhoods nearby.
But six years later, amid the economic downturn, anchors such as Linens 'n Things, Circuit City and Office Depot are shuttered. Many of the Boulevard's retailers that remain sell T-shirts, jeans and cellphones, stores that resemble those found in run-down retail strips. Crime is a problem. Five people have been killed there in four years, the latest this month outside the Sideline, the restaurant owned by former Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington. Residents wanted what Landover Mall had been in its early years: classy, safe and worthy of acclaim.
What they have now, residents including Arthur Turner contend, is a shopping center struggling to maintain its anchors and the support from residents it needs to survive.
"We thought it would be the next frontier in economic development and retail in Prince George's County," said Turner, president of the Coalition of Central Prince George's Community Organizations. "But that center has fallen woefully short of what we would have hoped for."
The county has attracted National Harbor, a sprawling complex with an office building, condominiums, restaurants and shops on the county's southern edge, which is building up its customer base. And Woodmore Town Centre will bring a Wegmans grocery store to the county next year. What residents say they want is something like downtown Silver Spring, which is filled during nice weather with families lounging, listening to music and lazily browsing through the shops.
But the Boulevard has been a disappointment to many.
"The operation has clearly suffered actual and image setbacks that are inconsistent with the lofty vision we set at the outset and the kind of product our citizens deserve," said Wayne K. Curry, who, as county executive from 1994 to 2002, led the effort to build the Boulevard. "It's off the track, clearly, and needs to be firmly redirected."
Bill Parks, vice president of property management at Inland Management, which runs the Boulevard, said that the shopping center is safe and that the company is working to fill the vacant storefronts. "We have cameras and adequate manpower on the property," he said. "We have an excellent relationship with the police department to coordinate any issues we have at the property . . . and we have installed a complete security surveillance system."
Officials with Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., which developed the mall, did not return a call for comment.
The mall opened to great fanfare in 2003, with a Borders bookstore, a Pier 1 Imports and an Ann Taylor Loft. A year later, Magic Johnson, the Los Angeles Laker-turned-businessman who had owned a Starbucks at the mall, joined elected officials to celebrate the opening of his movie theater. But last year the economic downturn started to drive anchor stores out of business, leaving empty storefronts at the core of the mall and at the strip shopping center that surrounds it.
In addition to the slaying outside the Sideline, three men were gunned down at an Uno Chicago Grill after a fight in the restaurant during the 2008 Super Bowl. In 2005, a 21-year-old man was beaten to death outside Borders. A teenager was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
County police said car break-ins are the biggest problem facing the shopping center. In 2007, there were 40 reports of thefts from automobiles; in 2008, there were 101. Reports of assaults and robberies have declined over the past two years.
Some residents have raised concerns about whether the Sideline is operating as a restaurant or a nightclub, saying the latter is not in keeping with the atmosphere the mall hopes to create. Phil Lee, a community activist, said he has complained to his state legislator about the Sideline.
"The liquor board should be looking at revoking its permit," he said. The county liquor board has scheduled a hearing on whether the restaurant is complying with its permit.
Rosalyn Pugh, Arrington's attorney, said the Sideline is a restaurant that offers sports activities and music. "It is a sports bar, not a nightclub," she said. She would not comment on the homicide or the crowd the sports bar draws.
As he ate lunch recently in the Boulevard's food court, Greg Perry said the mall is just "not his environment." He patronizes the restaurants during the day but not at night because of the number of teenagers who hang around.
"And the problem is, teenagers will be teenagers," he said.
Gregory Holmes, who lives about five miles from the Boulevard, said he takes his 8- and 12-year-old sons to the restaurants and the movie theater at the mall but doesn't shop there. "We still have to travel outside of the county to spend our disposable income," he said. "The income is here, the rooftops are here, and yet we don't get the retail that we can support."
Inland officials said they review store leases when they expire to determine whether the property has a mix of tenants that caters to a variety of demographics. They said the mall's occupancy rate is about 85 percent.
Parks said that he understands concerns about the number of stores that accommodate younger crowds but that Inland is meeting customer demand.
"There is a large market for teenagers and tweens that can not be ignored," Parks said. "Studies have shown about $4 billion, and that's with a B, in sales from this age group."
He said the mall instituted a parental escort program last year to decrease loitering at night. Under the policy, security guards start asking teenagers unaccompanied by a parent or guardian for identification after 9 p.m. If the youth has no adult escort, he or she is asked to leave.
Kwasi Holman, president of the county's Economic Development Corporation, said his office is actively working with mall management and community members to find retailers to fill mall vacancies. Unfortunately, he said, most retailers are closing, not opening, stores.