Before his death Sunday, Harry Weinberg had the reputation as Baltimore's biggest absentee landlord -- a man whose refusal to sell or upgrade his downtown properties stymied efforts to revitalize Howard Street. But now that control of his vast real estate empire has passed to a foundation set up in his name, the city's efforts to revive the moribund retail district may find a more sympathetic ear.
Although the five-member board of trustees of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation have not yet indicated what plans they may have for the dozens of buildings or lots in Mr. Weinberg's Baltimore real estate portfolio, at least one longtime colleague of Mr. Weinberg's said he believes the trustees will be more likely to cooperate with the city.
"I think they're going to be more flexible," Lawrence Weisman, Mr. Weinberg's attorney for the past 40 years. "They're high-caliber people who are very realistic. They know enough to carry out his wishes, but they won't be as inflexible as he was, I don't think."
According to the foundation's charter, the trustees are prohibited from selling any of the Baltimore holdings, including the property in the Howard Street-Lexington Market renewal area, except "under compelling circumstances."
But that requirement does not prevent the foundation from leasing Weinberg properties to other parties who will upgrade them, as developer Jack Pechter of JHP Enterprises did with the Weinberg-owned Edmondson Village Shopping Center.
Based in Hawaii since 1968, Mr. Weinberg was known as a hard-nosed businessman who was willing to leave his holdings in bad repair rather than invest money to fix them up and fill them with tenants.
His refusal to sell or upgrade properties in the Howard Street renewal area became a particular source of frustration to former Mayor William Donald Schaefer and other city officials, who targeted the area around Lexington Market for revitalization but could not get Mr. Weinberg to join in. According to city officials, Mr. Weinberg said only that he would improve his buildings when it was in his financial interest to do so.
Trustees of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation include William and Nathan Weinberg, Baltimore area-based brothers of Harry Weinberg; Bernard Siegel, a Baltimore associate; Alvin Awaya, manager of Mr. Weinberg's Hawaiian holdings; and Robert T. Kelly Sr., a Scranton, Pa., accountant.
William and Nathan Weinberg said yesterday that the trustees ++ haven't begun to address issues involving Mr. Weinberg's local real estate holdings and won't begin to do so for at least a week.
"We don't know that ourselves yet," Nathan Weinberg said when asked what will happen to the Baltimore properties.
The Baltimore holdings, while sizable, represent just a fraction of the real estate portfolio amassed by Mr. Weinberg, an empire estimated to be worth more than $1 billion.
Insiders say the Baltimore properties probably are worth less than one-tenth of the total. Other Weinberg properties include factories in Tennessee and Michigan and a number of post office buildings across the United States.
Walter Sondheim, chairman of Center City-Inner Harbor Development Inc., the agency that oversees downtown development, said he believes the ultimate disposition of the Weinberg properties in Baltimore will depend on the trustees.
"Instead of looking at these properties just in terms of a long-term investment, as Mr. Weinberg did, it's reasonable that they will look on them as a way of achieving maximum income [for the charitable foundation], and that could mean working with the city in areas of redevelopment," he said.
"If the trustees are somewhat more flexible in their willingness to deal, then it may be that these properties will be part of a rejuvenation of the areas around them," he added.
Among Mr. Weinberg's holdings were a number of key properties near Lexington Market, including the former Stewart's department store building at Howard and Lexington streets; the building that houses Epstein's at Park Avenue and Lexington Street; the Bank of Baltimore operations center at Centre Street and Park Avenue; the land under the Trailways bus station on Fayette Street; and the entire east side of the 500 block of North Howard Street.
Outside the Market Center area, Mr. Weinberg's area holdings have included the Edmondson Village shopping center, the Pleasant Plains Shopping Center, the Woodmoor Shopping Center, the Charring Cross Shopping Center and the Patapsco Shopping Plaza.