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By Melody Simmons – Senior Reporter, Baltimore Business Journal

A national grocery chain has inked a long-sought deal to open a store in East Baltimore by 2025.

The deal with the yet-to-be identified chain was signed this winter by Henson Development Co. and will bring a 35,000-square-foot market to the food desert of Orleans Street and Central Avenue, according to Dana Henson, principal of Henson. The store will anchor an eight-story, 190-unit apartment tower expected to break ground next year, she added.

“Bricks and sticks are great, but helping people is the most important part of development,” Henson said of the coup to bring a grocery store to the long-barren corner.

The tower is planned to be the fourth building in a complex that will replace the Somerset Homes public housing project that was razed in 2009. It is also a component of a $1 billion redo of the 250-acre area that will remake the Perkins Homes, Somerset and Oldtown footprints into a modern community with new mixed-income housing, public parks and retail and office space. That project, the Perkins-Somerset-Old Town Transformation Plan, kicked off three years ago.

The Henson Development Co. is redeveloping the Somerset site in partnership with the Mission First Housing Group. The development firm was founded by Daniel P. Henson III, a former Baltimore housing commissioner who also headed the Housing Authority of Baltimore City under the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Dana Henson declined to name the grocery chain on Tuesday, citing an ongoing due diligence phase of the deal. She said the entire investment in the former Somerset site would be $198 million and include the grocery store, four new apartment buildings and a public park.

The first apartment tower by Henson and Mission First at the site, 104-unit 1234 McElderry, is fully leased and opened in 2021 with a waitlist. Two other towers, named after jazz greats, The Ella at Somerset and The Ruby at Somerset, will open in September. The grocery-anchored tower, The Blake, is expected to open by mid-2025.

“Having a store there will be the greatest contribution we can make in this part of the city,” she said. “This area is a food desert and is so deserving of healthy foods.”

The East Baltimore grocery deal took over two years to complete, Henson said. It gelled after the ICSC national retailing convention last May in Las Vegas, with the location drawing interest from three other potential grocery chains who explored moving into the community because of its ongoing redevelopment with 558 total new apartment units, she added.

The winning bid from the unnamed chain was inked with some help from Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore broker Jamie Lanham, of Segall Group, Henson said.

“I never gave up trying and I never took no for an answer,” she said, of the quest for the grocery store lease. “Other people saw value in this site. We had a deal and then it fell apart, and then we went from zero possibilities to four last year.”