Cynthia Hopkins thinks it’s about time the Edmondson Village Shopping Center got a makeover. The center needs fewer hair supply stores, she said, and more sit-down restaurants like the ones she and her children used to dine when they first moved into the nearby Rognel Heights community in 1970.
“We need the change. … Change is hard, but it’s all in the name of progress,” Hopkins said.
A Chicago-based developer wants to bring this change to the Edmondson Village Shopping Center, but a decades-old covenant is standing in the way.
Chicago TREND has a contract to purchase the shopping center with a vision to add more retail, sit-down restaurants and possibly senior housing on a vacant lot in the rear. But before the developer can move forward with the purchase or a plan, Chicago TREND CEO Lyneir Richardson is asking property owners on certain parcels of land to amend several parts of a 1945 covenant.
“We are at a decision point. If we can’t get the covenant amended, it’s likely we can’t proceed with the project,” Richardson said.
The 1945 covenant, a contractual agreement that details how land can be used, predates the shopping center, which opened in 1947. The covenant puts certain restrictions on the shopping center and parcels of land on Rokeby Road between Swann Avenue and Walnut Avenue, and Walnut Avenue between Seminole Avenue and Gelston Drive. Parts of the Rognel Heights community — a neighborhood with a mix of stand-alone homes and attached brick rowhouses — is covered under the covenant.
The parts of the covenant the developer is pushing to amend include restrictions on multiuse residential buildings, architectural design and signage, as well as setback restrictions related to Edmondson Avenue.
“The covenant is the reason the center is how it looks today,” Richardson said. Specifically, the covenant is keeping the center from being modernized, he added.
On the outside, the center’s Colonial Williamsburg-inspired aesthetic remains, looking pretty much like it did when first opening. Renovations over the years were mostly done to the inside of the buildings. A local development company, JHP Realty, leased the Edmondson Village Shopping Center in 1987 to renovate, according to W. Edward Orser’s book “Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story.” By 1992, Orser wrote, the center was refurbished and many commercial spaces were reoccupied. After fires in 2019 and 2021, parts of a building were removed, stores were renovated; some areas are still boarded up.
Jon Laria, a lawyer with Ballard Spahr, which represents Chicago TREND, said the company is also seeking to permanently remove a part of the covenant that, though unenforceable, restricted occupancy of the land by “any Negro or person of Negro extractions” unless they were a servant. The Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants could not be enforced in 1948. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned racially restrictive covenants from being included in deeds. Many still remain on historic deeds.
Although it’s not addressed in the developer’s amendment, the covenant also prohibits the operation of any brewery, distillery, slaughterhouse, hospital asylum sanatoria or funeral homes on the land.
To get certain parts of the covenant amended, the developer is following the covenant’s directive. It’s not uncommon for original covenants to list instructions. Historically, covenants were used to “carve out residents’ vision of what would be a pleasing environment to live in,” said Gerald Korngold, a trustee professor of law at New York Law School. Before zoning, middle class and upper middle class residents relied on covenants to create “residential havens” away from the noise, traffic and other qualities of busy cities, Korngold said. They were also used as segregation tools to keep African Americans out of coveted white neighborhoods.
Areas in Columbia, Towson and Original Northwood in Baltimore are some places that have covenants.
District 8 Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who has been pushing to get the condition of the shopping center addressed for nearly a decade, said the covenant hasn’t helped improve the center.
“It is my hope that we not only share the history, but the vision for what we want to see here,” Burnett said.
The covenant requires a majority of property owners on both stretches of land to agree to changes. There are 74 separate parcels of property on the land that the shopping center and the neighborhood behind it are on. And, there are also 41 parcels on the southwest side of Walnut Avenue, according to the amendment.
Going forward with a development without amending or following a covenant is risky, Laria said, and a developer can be sued and might have a hard time getting funding for the project.
In a recent community meeting, Richardson said he needed less than 16 additional signatures. An enthused Hopkins signed the document before leaving the meeting. Adrienne Jenkins, a member of the Rognel Heights Community Association, hadn’t made up her mind.
Jenkins said she wants to do right by her family home and community. Her parents worked hard to buy the Rognel Heights house in the 1960s. She and her sister own the home and moved in after their parents died. She had no idea there was a covenant until a meeting with her community association in September where she learned about the developer’s interest in the Edmondson Village Shopping Center. She wants the covenant better explained so she can make an informed decision.
“I just need someone to break it down to me and be honest … My concern is trust,” Jenkins said.
Daisy Fields, a Rognel Heights Community Association leader and longtime resident, said she’s known about the covenants for years and she tries to encourage newer homeowners to research them.
“I am for whatever the majority of the community wants to see done,” Fields said.
Monique Washington, Edmondson Village Community Association president, said she’d like a shopping center that’s going to be beneficial to the community and not focused only on profit.
The 75-year-old shopping center is a historic, former hot spot once filled with eclectic retail options and entertainment, and a massive, two-level parking lot that still exists. Gone are the days when a bowling alley, movie theater, Hess Shoes with live monkeys in the storefront window, and a Hochschild Kohn were in the space.
Jai Joyce, a lifelong resident of Edmondson Village, said the community associations could work better at working toward an improved shopping center, which would benefit the entire area.
“I’m an advocate for bringing Edmondson back to life. Not just the center, but the neighborhood,” Joyce said. She’d like a place for people to gather and watch a basketball game or go back to being a convenient, one-stop shop for communities.
Today, there’s a Popeyes, a hair supply store, a Maryland Women, Infant and Children clinic, Kimmy’s Soul Food, several carryouts and a fairly new Truist bank branch. Historically, West Baltimore communities have had limited storefront banking options — an issue that still continues today.
James Carter said he didn’t know about the covenant until a flyer was put on his door. He grew up nearby and would like to see more businesses in the center owned by people in the neighborhood.
“I just don’t like that the money’s not staying in this ZIP code,” Carter said.
The purchase price for the Edmondson Village Shopping Center is confidential, Richardson said, but he estimates a complete renovation at over $20 million. The mayor’s office committed $8 million to the renovation, according to Deputy Solicitor Ebony Thompson, and Richardson also hopes to get state support.
Ira Miller — managing member of Edmondson Village LLC, which has owned the shopping center for over 10 years — reached out to Chicago TREND at least a year ago after a colleague mentioned the company and their track record with similar developments, he said. Miller renovated some stores after the fires, but said renovating the entire center is financially challenging.
Miller has high hopes for the current plans.
“I believe with these pieces of the puzzle, the future of the shopping center is super bright,” he said.
Chicago TREND purchased Walbrook Junction Shopping Center in Baltimore in 2021 and offered a co-ownership opportunity to community investors. The co-ownership minimum donation was $1,000. Richardson said the Edmondson Village Shopping Center project can adopt the same model, but not everyone is on board with that idea.
David Smallwood, president of the nearby Uplands Community Association, said he doesn’t trust the community investment incentive and thinks every time a developer comes into the neighborhood they try to “play on the heartstrings” of youth and seniors. He’d like to see a project that builds on what’s already in the shopping center and includes an affordable space the community can rent out for events.
Chicago TREND hopes to complete acquisition of the shopping center by mid-December or mid-January, but not without the signatures necessary to amend parts of the covenant.
Jenkins worries about the quick timeline and wonders if there are ulterior motives. Richardson said he is willing to speak to whoever wants more information about the company and the covenant, and is planning additional meetings and door-to-door visits to acquire more signatures.
“We need now to get the last remaining people to buy in to change the story. We’re trying to change the narrative,” Richardson said.