An Ill-Lustrious Future for Frederick's Golden Mile?
While the value of gold has been soaring the last several years, the commercial real estate values of Frederick’s Golden Mile continue to plunge. Much has changed since the early 1990s when the west end of Frederick City was touted as the county's retail hub.
Built in 1972, the Frederick Towne Mall became the anchor of this 1.8 mile stretch of West Patrick Street from the US 15 overpass westward to the still famous giant candy cane of the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant.
A 1990 Frederick Magazine article entitled From Farmlands to Shopping Centers, boasted: "What makes the Golden Mile special is that it's got something for everyone." Long time commercial real estate professional Marybeth Visco was quoted saying: "It's a hot area and it's always going to be hot."
That was then...
By the end of the decade, that gold began to lose its luster with the departure of several established retailers. And while some of the vacancies filled with new merchants, a sense of emptiness lingered as the Francis Scott Key Mall to the south at Evergreen Point finally came into being, flanked by several "Big Box" stores.
Today, the name "Golden Mile" is consider more of a negative than a positive, according to the businesses and residents who answered a survey conducted by the Frederick City Planning office as it embarked on a mission to find a solution to revitalize the dying area in early 2010.
Concerns over the increased concentration of crime, visual appearance of vacant properties, along with traffic and pedestrian safety in the area ranked high.
The once illustrious Frederick Towne Mall today would be more appropriately named the Ghost Towne Mall, as it sits almost completely vacant awaiting notice of its demolition day.
Just last week the Giant Food officials announced the closing of its Westridge Square Center location on West Patrick Street, claiming that the store was "underperforming."
A vision to polish up some tired commercial real estate
As stated above, the city planning staff kicked off a strong initiative using the small area planning process to develop some ideas and an action plan to put some shine back into this tarnished area. This kind of effort is a natural extension of the city's comprehensive planning work, which has been headed by Nick Colonna, the manager of the program.
Since March of 2010, under Mr. Colonna's oversight, city staff has conducted a number of surveys and held public workshops with presentations to garner "stakeholder" feedback.
After many dedicated hours and significant local participation, the results were presented to the Mayor and Board in a workshop meeting on Wednesday, March 30, 2011.
The Vision developed by the effort highlighted 5 key components:
· High Quality Architecture;
· Pedestrian Friendly Environment;
· Variety of Parks and Open Spaces;
· Promote a Mixture of Uses; and
· Promote Safety.
Two alternatives were established.
Site analysis Alternative One proposes to keep the current layout, focus on upgrading existing façades and encourage higher end retail uses. Other priorities are to improve vehicular and pedestrian conflicts, as well as connections to shared use pathways. It also suggests improved safety.
Alternate Two puts strong focus on a long term plan to develop a series of parallel roads to US 40, which would become a "new main" street for the area. Some of these roads would be required to run through the parking lots of existing retail shopping centers, such as Frederick County Square, Westridge Square Center, etc.
Within these newly formed blocks, the focus would be on providing for the development of multi-storied buildings with a mixed use concentration of retail and offices.
From this commercial real estate broker's perspective, it has some exciting components for the long term ... but what is missing from the front end?
It seemed clear that the aldermen of The City of Frederick saw the vision as very interesting and somewhat exciting; however, undertones of concern came through.
Alderman Shelley Aloi raised an essential question by asking if the actual property owners of the retail centers had been invited to be a part of this planning process.
Surprisingly the response was "not yet." Mr. Colonna responded that he wanted to get "further down the road" with a more solid plan.
Ms. Aloi encouraged staff to work with the owners to get early buy-in so as to avoid potential regulatory enforcement conflicts and "eminent domain issues."
The point I heard from this conversation was a classic question of whether this planning process has truly been comprehensive thus far.
Why not ask the existing retail and business center real estate owners, who have the largest financial investment in the plan, to be part of the plan?
Their experience in similar retail projects throughout the region could provide valuable insight in developing a successful vision … and, if asked, what would be their greatest current concern?
Does one put a new suit on a patient before he is cured of his illness?
The survey data overwhelmingly showed crime and safety as the Number One concern across the board of all stakeholders. The owners' opinion would be no different. Right or wrong, perception and reality are pretty close on this point.
From my perspective the very first phase of the "vision" should be to get this issue under control.
If there is any one thing that has driven consumers away from the once "Golden" Mile, it has to be the matter of personal safety.
When consumer dollars go elsewhere, business revenues drop, leading to lost jobs, business failures or relocation away from the area. That means vacancies that force property owners to reduce rents in an attempt to fill space. Low revenue expectations and reduced rents in a high crime area attract a lesser quality of business type.
Concentrated efforts and great strides have been made by local law enforcement along the Golden Mile, but what other kinds of support do they believe is needed to bring about a truly dynamic change?
Please consider how a major investment in making the Golden Mile a safer environment will do more to lay the groundwork to return the luster of the area than any other plan. It's a critical first step – an investment that will pay major dividends to the city coffers.
The author is president of MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for www.TheTentacle.com.