Ronald Banks and his two-year old son, Joshua, strolled the Laurel Mall while waiting for his wife to finish shopping. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Laurel Mall in Prince George’s County was packed. Shoppers strolled from store to store, finding deals at J.C. Penney and Hecht’s. Children jumped around, waiting for their turns on the quarter rides in the food court.

As she walked into the dimly lit, nearly empty mall recently, Karen Deychak of Laurel said she fondly remembers that place. The mall where her young daughter would sit on Santa’s lap, posing for pictures and asking for the Cabbage Patch doll she had at the top of her Christmas list.

Today, discount stores have replaced retailers like Victoria’s Secret, and many of the hallways are lined with vacant storefronts. The few signs of activity are in Macy’s and Burlington Coat Factory, the mall’s two anchors and the only top-name retailers left.

“It’s really gone down over the years,” Deychak said. “It’s an embarrassment to the city.”

But all that is about to change.

Developer Greenberg Gibbons, Somera Capital Management and AEW Capital Management plan to tear down the mall and build a town center in its place. The project, which will include 400 multifamily units and 400,000 square feet of retail, restaurants and entertainment venues, will be similar to redevelopment projects Greenberg Gibbons helped build in Hunt Valley and Annapolis. Demolition is scheduled to begin early next year.

“We just think it’s a great market and a great location,” said Tom Fitzpatrick, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Greenberg Gibbons.

Deychak said she hopes the new approach will return Laurel Mall, which at one time was bigger than and enjoyed as much regional appeal as the White Flint and Columbia malls, to its glory.

“I just hope that things will start to come back,” said Joy Powell, a Beltsville resident who used to shop at the mall about a decade ago.

Onetime showpiece

Laurel Mall opened on the busy Route 1 corridor in 1979 with great fanfare. There had been two separate shopping centers, one with a Montgomery Ward and the other with a Hecht’s. In 1977, a New York developer Shopco came up with a multimillion-dollar plan to use an indoor mall to connect the two.

The result: a small slice of suburbia. It was the place where teenagers hung out until closing; where parents brought their children to play with the puppies in the pet store window; and where moms brought their daughters to buy prom dresses.

Laura Callaway and her husband, Bob, who came to Whitney’s Jewelers recently to have links removed from a gold watch, said they remembered the mall’s heyday.

“We would come here when J.C. Penney and Hecht’s were here,” Laura Callaway said. “But when Hecht’s left there was no appeal to come here [to shop].” The Hecht’s store became a Macy’s, but Callaway said the offerings are better at other malls.

Over the years, the mall has deteriorated. The hustle and bustle has been replaced with a smattering of shoppers running in and out of mom-and-pop shops to get shoes repaired, watches fixed and nails manicured.

The downward spiral began when Montgomery Ward filed for bankruptcy. Later, Arundel Mills opened its doors and Columbia Mall got a makeover, and they drew many area shoppers.

The new town center will mean more than economic renewal to residents and the city, said County Council member Mary Lehman (D-Laurel). It will be a morale booster, she said.

Following industry trend

The redevelopment is part of a trend in the retail industry. Earlier this month, the owners of White Flint Mall in Rockville said they plan to knock down its building and replace it with a mixed-use development of housing, shops, offices and park space. The project will take about 25 years.

Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said the industry is moving away from the traditional enclosed malls that opened across the country starting in the 1950s. Tron said just one enclosed mall has been built in the United States since 2009, Crystals at City Center in Las Vegas. Another is on the drawing board at the Meadowlands in New Jersey by the developers of the Mall of America, near Minneapolis, he said.

“In reality, across the board, development is constrained,” Tron said. “No new development, no matter what format.”

The trend, he said, is massive renovations of current malls or tearing down structures and rebuilding on the vacant property, as is the case in Laurel and Rockville.

Deychak would just be happy to see Laurel Mall go back in time to when it was the place to go shopping.

“I’m just ecstatic about it,” she said of the prospect of the town center. “We need it. . . . Laurel is growing, but it seems like we’re not growing with it.

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