Baltimore County and the state are throwing $20 million to transform the long-ailing Security Square Mall, and want Woodlawn residents to steer the ship toward what the site will become.

The sizable public investment in a languishing private property is atypical; but so are Security Square’s problems, urban planners say.

Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, whose district includes Woodlawn and surrounding areas, each budgeted $10 million to launch a month-long charrette process, which involves community input over several meetings to develop a vision for the 93-acre property and the area surrounding it.

The investment follows efforts started by the Randallstown NAACP early last year, when the chapter organized a Security Square Revitalization Task Force and conducted a study similar to the county’s charrette. The group began lobbying elected leaders more fervently to resolve crime, code enforcement and infrastructure concerns at Security Square.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

From October through early November, the county will hold 11 meetings to gauge what Woodlawn residents want.

At least 100 people buzzed around a conference room at Set the Captives Free Outreach Center, attached to Security Square Mall, during the first in-person meeting of the charrette Wednesday evening.

Inside, residents, planners and elected officials circled among whiteboards, earnestly describing their vision for Security Square.

Right now “it’s just not pretty,” Monica Mitchell, a Woodlawn resident, told a member of the firm helping design the project, who scribbled Mitchell’s thoughts on the nearby whiteboard.

“This has to be visually lovely to make me want to go there,” Mitchell said, “considering Howard County” is close by.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Notes hastily written on other whiteboards said “affordable/mixed housing,” “dog park,” and “something for the young people.”

Baltimore County spent $10 million to acquire the nearly 203,000-square-foot former Sears building at Security Square in September. Another $1.6 million has also been spent on planning, according to county auditors. The charrette will determine how the rest of the funds will be used.

“It is sort of breaking, in a way, new ground,” Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk, whose district includes part of Woodlawn, said. The county’s past efforts to redevelop underinvested areas of the county usually involve a public-private partnership, Quirk added.

“This is really the county almost going alone in a new world of just investing solely,” he said.

Security Square sign at the entrance of the mall in Baltimore, MD, Wednesday, October 12, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

County representatives say the possibilities for the mall are endless: An entertainment venue to hold concerts, new residences attached to shops, and a smorgasbord of chophouses, playgrounds, outdoor eateries and offices.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Everything is on the table for this,” Jennifer Ray, a project manager and associate vice president at Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, told a group of almost 180 participants during the county’s first meeting kicking off the Security Square Mall charrette.

Miko Baldwin, a longtime Woodlawn resident and community advocate, separately surveyed more than 300 residents about their visions for the sprawling property. Most spoke about food access and safe recreational spaces for children and seniors, another grocery store for those living in the food desert, restaurants, a YMCA, or a Dave & Busters, Baldwin said during a September kickoff meeting.

“We want to get more into restaurants instead of fast food,” Baldwin said, and “things that the kids can do so we can keep them occupied so they don’t go out and do other things.”

“We want to get back to family-oriented things,” she said.

Baldwin said she’s lived in Woodlawn for more than 50 years. In that time, prominent stores and restaurants like JCPenney, Bennigan’s and Sears have come and gone, their storefronts left empty. Infrastructure around the mall, like curbs and roads, have deteriorated.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“A lot of us travel to the Northeast for crabs, for food and things of that nature,” Baldwin said, or “go to Patapsco State Park, which leads you into Howard County. So Howard County is getting all of my money right now — and I want to leave it in Baltimore County.”

County planning director Steve Lafferty told the County Council during a September meeting that appraisers valued the building at $9.8 million — but the price tag surprised urban planners like Klaus Philipsen, president of ArchPlan Inc., a Baltimore-based architecture and urban design firm that specializes in community revitalization development projects.

“The question is, is that a good investment?” Philipsen asked. “I don’t have an answer. The answer is, it depends.”

Lafferty said the county intends to relinquish the property to a management company, but doesn’t rule out the notion of public-private partnerships for some of the social and community services, like a senior center, Woodlawn residents want.

But he added that reuse of the Security Square property isn’t being figured into the planning department’s 10-year development master plan, which is still being drafted.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

When Quirk asked county planners during a September council meeting whether they have “an exit strategy,” Lafferty said the county doesn’t intend to keep the property.

“We don’t build housing, we don’t build shopping centers,” Lafferty said. “I don’t think that’s [the County Executive’s] vision.”

An empty parking lot outside of Sears at Security Square Mall in Baltimore County, Wednesday, October 12, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

The mall, which opened in 1972, is a shell of its former self. Its anchoring Macy’s (which owns much of the mall property) remains, but the clothing options are limited and aren’t the same quality or variety as the clothing Macy’s sells at its Towson Town Center storefront, some Woodlawn residents said. Semitrucks used by a trade school that trains commercial truck drivers are eyesores parked on the property, others added.

Malls across the U.S. have shuttered as online shopping has risen in popularity and many have been successfully replaced with mixed-use town-center redevelopments, Philipsen said.

But it’s hard to compare Security Square to other malls targeted for redevelopment, Philipsen said, because it has a “multitude of owners. That is atypical.”

Efforts to redevelop the mall’s 93 acres for various uses over the years — a Wawa gas station and proposals to bring fast-food chains and office buildings — waned without community support or consensus among the mall’s five owners, who have feuded privately and in court for years.

Mall owners — which include Howard S. Brown, who developed the Metro Centre in Owings Mills — haven’t spent dollars needed to maintain the property, including filling in potholes, fixing broken light poles or hiring more than one security guard to oversee the property.

Residents and officials say that’s led to high-profile public safety incidents, like a parking lot shootout last summer when two Baltimore City Police officers killed a man who shot and injured them while police attempted to serve him a warrant in connection to a city homicide. The incident spurred an online petition signed by about 800 people calling on elected leaders to resolve the mall’s issues.

“That shooting really amplified what we were saying; that people are not looking to Security Square Mall as a place to shop and eat. They’re looking at it as place of nefarious activity,” said Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP, which last summer launched a task force to explore redeveloping Security Square.

“Shootings, car shows, kids hanging out — a lot of these things, we’re still dealing with today,” he said.

The total number of reported assaults, sex crimes, car theft, weapons laws violations and narcotics offenses in the first nine months of this year are only marginally higher than they were in the ZIP code surrounding Security Square during the same timeframe last year, according to crime data disclosed by the county.

Coleman said Security Square’s decline is “a total failure of the former county executive and council,” who Coleman and many others had lobbied for years to rehab the property.

Now, though, “this is working because we have a [county executive] who wants this to happen,” Coleman said, adding that the council needs to remain engaged.

“We’re not talking about just approving the [money] when it comes down,” he said. “We’re talking about actively and aggressively advocating for the mall and surrounding area and our older community.”

Woodlawn residents who live in the ZIP code that includes Security Square Mall are predominantly Black, and a number are low-income and live more than a half-mile from the closest grocery store, according to data from the Food and Drug Administration, making the area around Security Square a food desert.

It sits within the “inner ring suburbs,” a term used by planners to describe some aged suburbs that are often overlooked by investors.

“You have a mall that has aged and looks like that, which is a huge impediment. And then the demographic forces … some businesses just don’t want to come into an African American area,” he said.

But county officials and urban planners say the property is a prime location for development, given its location at the major crossroads of the 695 Beltway and Interstate 70, with public transit access to several bus routes.

It’s also in an “opportunity zone,” a federally designated area targeted for revitalization in “economically distressed” areas where developers and businesses are offered tax breaks to build and relocate, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department.

There are a slew of other programs and fiscal resources that can be leveraged to build out the project, Philipsen said. And earlier this year, the General Assembly passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Charles Sydnor III, whose district encompasses Woodlawn, enabling Baltimore County to establish a West Baltimore County Redevelopment Authority, which gives the county the ability to raise revenue and issue bonds to acquire, develop, or redevelop and dispose of certain properties in western Baltimore County for residential, commercial or industrial uses.

“There are all these different benefits that are sitting there and no one organization has pulled that all together and marketed it to people who might be interested,” Sydnor said.

He’s optimistic the significant public investment will spur positive redevelopment, which he sees as a dense, walkable urban town center — a departure from antiquated, automobile-centric planning that guided land use regulations in decades past, he said, with storefronts and eateries lining a grid of streets, pockets of green space, and public services like a post office or recreational facility.

But to get there, Philipsen advised there should be a legally binding redevelopment plan or a planned unit development that goes beyond the bounds of the mall property. And he suggests the county enact a building moratorium on the mall property until Security’s Square’s future is determined.

Coleman is encouraged by steps the Olszewski administration and Jones have taken to push forward the charrette, but he remains wary.

“For too long, people have continued to tell African American and Black folks and brown people and poor folks what we hope to hear — but it never comes to fruition,” Coleman said.

“That is always a caveat. That is always in the back of a lot of people’s minds.”

Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun.

More From The Banner