While Giant celebrates opening of new Burtonsville store, the shopping center it left behind struggles

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, November 8, 2010

On one side of Old Columbia Pike in Burtonsville is the future. Giant Food is preparing this Sunday to throw open the doors of its new grocery store at Burtonsville Town Square, BMC Property Group's 120,000-square-foot town center in Montgomery County.

On the other side is the past -- a shopping center called Burtonsville Crossing that once was Giant's home. The grocer's exit has left the shopping center's owner, Edens & Avant, in a bind. Giant maintains the right to reject competitors from leasing the space, and land-use rules prevent other alternatives, such as a department store.

County officials have offered to help Columbia, S.C.-based Edens & Avant find a solution to this quagmire, but only if the landlord can first identify a possible tenant, according to Steve Silverman, director of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development.

Pinning down an anchor to fill the 55,130-square-foot void left by Giant has been an uphill battle. In a letter sent to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) in August, Edens & Avant, which declined to comment for this article, said it has unsuccessfully wooed several retailers, including Kohl's and Target.

"Our primary interest comes from other grocery stores such as Harris Teeter, however Giant will not allow a replacement grocer to compete with their new store," the company wrote.

To attract tenants, Edens & Avant said in the letter, it set asking rents at $16 to $28 per square foot, "drastically below the new center across the street," where rents range from $28 to $34 per square foot.

Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant, declined to discuss the specifics of the grocer's agreement with Edens & Avant but said it was "working with the landlord to identify a new retail tenant for that space."

Giant's departure from Burtonsville Crossing is just the culminating event in a string of disappointments at the center. The state's realignment of Route 29 in 2004 redirected traffic away from the front of the property, eventually leading four tenants to break their leases to move. Then in 2008, Mattress Discounters and Dollar Buys both filed for bankruptcy and shuttered stores.

"We were trying to recover from [the realignment] when the County agreed to approve the Burtonsville Square site ... needless to say, we are now in a dire situation," Edens & Avant's letter said.

Capital One and Hair Cuttery made a beeline from the Crossing to the Town Square. And once word about Giant got out, several other tenants decided not to renew their leases. As it stands, more than two-thirds of the 129,726-square-foot strip shopping center sits vacant and another 13,480 square feet is in jeopardy because of co-tenancy agreements linked to Giant.

A meeting between county officials and Edens & Avant is scheduled for this week. Silverman said the retail company has already floated a few ideas to rejuvenate its asset, including a new entrance point off of Route 29 to drive traffic to the center. The county may support such plans, but not "without there being a nibble" from an anchor, he said.

Edens & Avant has a history of repositioning aging neighborhood retail, and may still come out on top. Back in August, it purchased Hunter Woods Village Center in Reston, with plans for capital improvements in the coming year. The company is presently renovating more than 20 of its 129 shopping centers nationwide.

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