- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Laurel Mall has been renamed Laurel Commons in one of the first tangible steps toward a turnaround for the struggling Maryland shopping center.

Laurel Commons also will get 440 residential units and a 50,000-square-foot grocery store — the tenant has yet to be named — in the space currently occupied by Burlington Coat Factory, according to developers. Burlington will move to a space further inside the mall.

Somera Capital Management LLC, the Santa Barbara, Calif., company that bought the mall last year, is working on bringing new tenants to the shopping center, which has struggled to bring in recognizable names or strong local tenants.

Tenants are going to be “much more in line with the community in terms of much better national, local and regional tenants than what’s currently there,” said Thomas P. Falatko, a senior vice president at Somera. “We’ve had very good interest in the project.”

Specifically, Somera plans to include a bookstore, health club and dining options from quick-service to family-friendly to white table cloth restaurants, he said. Consolidated Theatres, a Charlotte, N.C., company, has signed on to operate the 16-screen theater planned for the shopping center.

Earlier this year, Somera announced it planned to redevelop the mall, which it bought in 2006 for $31 million. But it kept details of this second phase of development under wraps until recently.

“People in the town are anxious to see something happen,” Mr. Falatko said. “The mall has really languished for many, many years before our involvement.”

Laurel Mall was successful when it opened in 1979. But anchor tenant Montgomery Ward went bankrupt in 2001 and closed its store. A year later, anchor J.C. Penney packed up and left. Crime problems left shoppers feeling unsafe, so they left in favor of the Mall in Columbia or Arundel Mills.

“The mall is, from Route 1, which is the front of the mall — it’s just a pathetic-looking thing. It’s certainly unattractive,” said Jim McCeney, 65, a nearly lifelong resident of Laurel and chairman of the Laurel Historical Society. “Both the stores and the clientele have gone down.”

Mr. McCeney said Laurel residents are excited to see the changes in the mall, but he is worried about the planned apartments.

Apartment complexes have sprouted up across the street from the shopping center and down U.S. Route 1 at Contee Road.

“There are some of us who are concerned that we’re [going to have] a disproportionate number of apartments,” he said, adding concern that apartment tenants typically aren’t as connected to a community as homeowners.

Preliminary construction, including demolition of the Route 1 parking deck, is scheduled to begin later this year. A grand opening is tentatively slated for early 2009.

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