Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration is considering two potential paths to redevelop Security Square Mall: one that retains the half-century-old mall, another that demolishes it.
Either way, experts say, public officials and private developers have to decide — and residents and business owners want to know — whom will the multimillion-dollar project benefit?
The county will have to reckon with Woodlawn’s stark income inequality while it seeks to draw new homeowners with a “revitalized” town center and by capitalizing on well-paid jobs at nearby federal offices. Those plans could further erode a historic gathering space for Black residents in Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
Officials will have to balance the financial interests of Security Square Mall’s multiple owners with community needs and wants, weighed against an uncertain real estate market.
They’ll have to decide what to do about roughly 100 mall tenants — many of whom are Black women operating small businesses — who would be displaced from the economically diverse, majority-Black community.
“No one’s ever against the idea of redevelopment or economic investment,” said Jason Richardson, senior director of research at the D.C.-based National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a collection of organizations and individuals driving equitable policy and private development.
“The tough part is figuring out how to let the people who live there enjoy the benefits of it,” Richardson said.
Olszewski’s administration organized roughly a dozen meetings last fall between government officials and western county community members, inviting Woodlawn residents to guide redevelopment plans; the meetings culminated in a May consultant report outlining two “visions” for Security Square Mall.
One option, supported by the Randallstown NAACP, would demolish the mall to make room for a hotel, offices, and more than 2,000 residences, perforated by pockets of outdoor recreational space and hemmed in by a greenway. It’s similar to a 2017 plan floated by David S. Brown Enterprises CEO Howard Brown, who owns parts of Security Square through LLCs and other agreements.
The report leaves wide room for private pedestrian-oriented development, like a row of storefronts along a biking path with places to shop and eat. It suggests amenities like “an outdoor museum dedicated to the community” and gardens. Ultimately, officials say they want to knit “the entire Security Square site together, creating a cohesive, walkable, neighborhood.”
Baltimore County presents another idea to retain mall buildings and surround them with “complementary” uses — restaurants, entertainment venues, and privately owned playgrounds and open space for farmers markets and other community events.
A plan intended to achieve rebirth of an ailing shopping center could end up depriving Black residents, who make up more than half of Woodlawn’s populace, of a familiar community space — that becomes more likely since the county intends to turn the site over to private industry, experts say.
The county is “gonna have to wrestle and become public ... about how to retain an important Black space,” Richardson said.
Deputy County Administrative Officer Sameer Sidh said officials are “supportive of the mall itself and want to see that thrive and be part of broader redevelopment.”
“If that doesn’t make sense as things flesh out,” Sidh said, demolishing Security Square is “certainly something that’s on the table.”
“It’s something that we’ll deal with further along in the plan,” he added, but county officials haven’t clarified when that might be.
Woodlawn racially, economically diverse
Such an ambitious, public-private redevelopment project in an area like Woodlawn — where income inequality pervades under the burden of disinvestment and neglect — puts residents living near Security Square at risk of displacement if they can no longer afford to live there following redevelopment.
Woodlawn’s demographics are atypical.
More than half the population is Black, according to census data. About one-fifth of residents are white and about 14% are Asian. Hispanic and/or Latin residents are 8% of Woodlawn’s populace. Sizable pockets of residents are at least 60 years old or born outside the U.S.
One-third of households make less than $50,000, according to census data. Their numbers are about evenly matched by households that make at least six figures.
The split puts Woodlawn residents’ per capita income at almost $32,700, according to census estimates; about three-fourths the per capita income of Baltimore County as a whole.
The National Community Reinvestment Coalition urged Baltimore County to plan for affordable housing and the roughly two out of every five Woodlawn residents who rent their homes, to ensure they aren’t priced out.
The group also said the county should support transit growth in Woodlawn and retain some ownership of the property to guarantee its use as a public community space. Officials have stressed from the outset that they don’t intend to keep any part of the mall once it’s redeveloped.
‘Half of the mall is dead’
Several Security Square tenants told The Banner in July that they haven’t heard from the county or mall owners. A large number of the mall’s businesses “are minority- and/or women-owned,” the county says — and many of them agree with shoppers who see the mall as a diamond in the rough, rely on its affordable shops and want the mall to be renovated.
“This is the place I shop all day for my kids,” said Esse Darlington, pausing from plucking boys’ pajamas from a rack in Burlington Coat Factory.
The father of two always finds nice things for his sons, one of them a toddler, for “good prices,” Darlington said; and the mall is five minutes away from the Woodlawn house where he and his wife moved six years ago.
“I got everything here close to me, so I don’t need to go far. It would affect me a lot,” Darlington said about a mall closure. “Driving to Towson is like 20 minutes for me. It’s far ... like really far.”
Latoya Mickens, who runs longtime mall footwear boutique Estillo, said she hasn’t “heard anything about” redevelopment.
Mickens took over as Estillo proprietor two years ago — and even though foot traffic “started dying more and more each day” amid the coronavirus pandemic, she said, she’s still getting paid.
“I’ve always come to this place,” Mickens said, standing in front of rows of red pumps, vegan leather boots and glittering ankle strap heels. She’s been shopping at Estillo since she was a 13-year-old growing up in Woodlawn, she said; the shoe store first opened in the mall in 1999, according to business records.
“Back in the day we used to have so much traffic,” said Mickens, a mother of two who lives in Catonsville. Now “half of the mall is dead. A lot of parts are dead, actually.”
Sidh, the county deputy administrator, said the goal is to help mall property owners “secure and maintain existing tenants, to keep some sort of short-term vibrancy on the site while we engage longer” plans.
He said he had not personally spoken with mall tenants, but that officials are having an “ongoing dialogue” with mall owners “and certain operations in the mall.”
“It’s [the redevelopment] really opened up the line of communications between tenants, ownership and the county in terms of how to make the best use of this site,” Sidh said.
Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP, said that many of the mall’s “mom and pop stores” that pay low rent for their storefronts “might not be able to be afford it anymore” if the redevelopment succeeds. He suggested the county help tenants relocate to other areas of Woodlawn.
“You, at least, minimize the impact as much as possible,” Coleman said.
New powers for county development
County officials say they know the initiative — investing public dollars in a dilapidated shopping center to reverse its course — is unusual.
They hope to capitalize on the nearby Social Security Administration headquarters and the federal Human Services Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to draw new federally employed homeowners and others looking to spend money in an area with a 6.1% unemployment rate — more than two-and-a-half times higher than in Maryland overall.
Baltimore County and Maryland elected officials have prioritized Security Square’s redevelopment since early 2022. They’ve injected $30 million in state and local funds into the project, more than half of which Olszewski has used to snap up portions of the mall subdivision.
And lawmakers passed state and local legislation over the last year enabling the county, through a development authority created last month, to acquire, develop and transfer property within 13 square miles around Security Square. Gov. Wes Moore set aside $1 million total in his operating and capital budget for the authority. Olszewski budgeted $500,000 in his own capital plan.
That money can be used for “anything the authority deems appropriate,” Olszewski told The Banner.
Baltimore County says it has acquired around one-third of the Security Square Mall subdivision, which spans around 90 acres. In August 2022, Olszewski’s administration bought 18 acres of subdivided land and the vacant Sears building from a company owned by hedge fund ESL Investments Inc. for $10 million. In May, the county said it bought another 12 acres from a limited liability company associated with developer Michael Glick.
The Baltimore County Council is expected to vote on the contract with Glick’s Security Wards LLC at its Aug. 7 meeting; according to county auditors, the contract will be void if the council doesn’t approve it by Aug. 7.
Officials say any redevelopment “requires buy-in” from all owners. That’s what they hope a west Baltimore County redevelopment authority will usher in.
The hangout spot
In Treasures, a jewelry store in Security Square Mall, operators RJ and Zee bristle at the idea of a total mall demolition.
“We just heard it in the news like everyone else,” RJ said. “It’s not what it was — that’s why we want someone to do something to upgrade the mall. Not destroy it.”
“A lot of older communities, they don’t want to go shopping miles and miles away,” RJ, who declined to give his last name to protect his privacy, added. “They’re used to coming here.”
A woman waved as she walked by the entrance to Treasures, calling out: “Hey, RJ!” The jeweler grinned brightly and waved back with a “Hey!”
The customer, Shareese, bought her wedding rings at Treasures 16 years ago, she said. She goes back yearly to get them cleaned.
Her friend, Angie Howard, said she came to Security Square on Friday to see how the mall has changed in the years since she and Shareese were in high school, working together at The Great Cookie.
“It was the hangout spot,” Howard said. Now whole corners where storefronts sit vacant are desolate.
Howard, who grew up in Woodlawn, said redeveloping Security Square would “probably do some good for the area. ... But I would hate to see some of these older shops who have been here for a while put out.”
“Like Treasures,” she added. “To push them out would be horrible.”