At the entrance to the shopping area at the Village of Cross Keys, a sign lists 26 shops and galleries. But the sign is misleading. The number includes precisely a dozen storefronts that are dark and abandoned.

Just beyond that sign, in the middle of a corridor leading to the village’s commercial square, there’s another notice, much bigger, that’s more indicative of conditions at Cross Keys. It lists the real estate people to call if you want to lease space. There’s a lot of it available.

Cross Keys
A sign at Cross Keys advertises retail space for lease. (Handout photo)

The retail heart of Cross Keys, at Falls Road just off Northern Parkway, once burst with energy and good cheer. Opened as an experimental planned community in 1965 by the legendary developer James Rouse, the shops and galleries were winners from the start, feeding off village residences, offices and the surrounding high-end North Baltimore neighborhoods.

But now, you can walk through the village square and often find yourself utterly alone.

And on March 31, in a lengthy front-page lead story, we had The Sun detailing what was once “a premier retail center’s lost luster.”

The story referred to both Cross Keys and Harborplace. Both are owned by Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp., a privately-held New York company with a $12 billion global portfolio. Both locations are faded images of their former glittery selves. But we’ll deal with Harborplace on another day.

The action’s been drifting away from Cross Keys for years now, dating back to  days when the Rouse Corp. still owned it. And nobody – including the Ashkenazy firm – has found a way to bring it back.

As The Sun’s reporters Meredith Cohn and Lorraine Mirabella pointed out, it’s been seven years since Ashkenazy purchased Cross Keys. The place was already losing tenants, including the popular Cross Keys Deli, whose regular customers included then-local hot shots such as Oprah Winfrey.

But the deli closed when the Rouse Company raised its rent and arbitrarily insisted on renovations. The closing seemed to set off a change in atmosphere for the entire square. Among the other businesses that have vacated Cross Keys in recent years: Bibelot Books, Ruth Shaw clothing, Jean Pool denim boutique, Samuel Parker Clothier, Red Door Salon & Spa and, over the winter, Donna’s Café.

Now, the The Sun reports, Cross Keys not only has multiple vacancies, but Ashkenazy finds itself in financial trouble – the company owes $21 million on Cross Keys (and $67 million on Harborplace) – and its loans are “just one step away from default,” according to the real estate research firm Trepp LLC.

As Ashkenazy goes, so goes Cross Keys. As Cross Keys goes, so goes a chunk of North Baltimore that once seemed such a hopeful piece of a disillusioned city that, right now, can’t even hold onto its most prominent tenant at City Hall.

Michael Olesker

A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.