Howard merchants debate future of charity's properties


November 26, 1990|By Edward Gunts

A photo caption in yesterday's MBW incorrectly identified the old Trailways bus station as the Greyhound station.

The Sun regrets the errors.

December may be approaching, but the feeling around Baltimore's traditional retail district isn't the spirit of Christmas past or Christmas present. It's the spirit of Harry Weinberg.

You can see it in the old Stewart's department store, a former hub of shopping activity that now sits largely vacant at the corner of Howard and Lexington streets. And in the handsome but empty loft buildings on two corners of Howard and Saratoga streets. At a time of year when the area once teemed with shoppers, they seem especially silent and forlorn.


But the legacy of Harry Weinberg is also evident inside the old Brager-Gutman store at Park Avenue and Lexington Street, now a productive branch of Epstein's. And in the old Hochschild-Kohn warehouse at Park Avenue and Centre Street, an office center for several hundred Bank of Baltimore employees.

Vacant or leased, run-down or fixed-up, these are all part of the more than four dozen local buildings and lots that billionaire financier and real estate mogul Harry Weinberg left behind when he died of bone cancer in Hawaii on Nov. 4.

Valued at $58 million by state assessors, the local properties represent but a fraction of Mr. Weinberg's real estate holdings, which are mostly in Hawaii and estimated to be worth close to $1 billion. But they make up a sizable portfolio for the Baltimore area, and especially for the Howard Street corridor, where most of them are located.

Mr. Weinberg's death raises new questions not only about the fate of his buildings -- which are now under control of the charitable trust he established, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation -- but also about the fate of the Market Center district on which he had so much impact.

For years, Mr. Weinberg had a reputation for being one of the chief impediments to the area's revival because of his refusal to keep his buildings leased and in good repair. At the time of his death, many of his buildings were vacant or underutilized. Is there a chance now that the situation will improve? And if so, how could his properties be used to revitalize the surrounding area?

Trustees of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, now one of the largest in the country, include William and Nathan Weinberg, two Baltimore area-based brothers of Harry Weinberg; Bernard Siegel, a Baltimore associate with many years of service to Mr. Weinberg; Alvin Awaya, manager of Mr. Weinberg's Hawaiian holdings; and Robert T. Kelly Sr., a Scranton, Pa., accountant.

They have made no statements about the fate of the local properties or how they might fit in with the foundation's obligation to spend an estimated $45 million each year to serve the poor. And Joel Winegarden, the Baltimore businessman who has managed Mr. Weinberg's local holdings, could not be reached for comment.

According to Mr. Weinberg's will, the foundation may sell the Baltimore properties only under "compelling circumstances" -- although they can lease them to others who might fix them up.

But recent interviews with merchants, business leaders, real estate brokers and others with a stake in the area show there is a wide range of ideas for ways the properties could help improve Howard Street -- assuming the trustees are more responsive to the city's needs than Mr. Weinberg was.

Alvin Levi, the president of Howard Street Jewelers, is one merchant who is optimistic that the trustees will take action to make sure the properties are better utilized -- if only to generate revenue to support the foundation's charitable causes.

"The people whom Harry Weinberg has entrusted with his charitable endeavors are far-sighted individuals, ones who have been known for being progressive, and I think they will handle the development and investment of Mr. Weinberg's real estate with the goal of fulfilling Mr. Weinberg's charitable interests," Mr. Levi said.

"Buildings that are dormant and not income-producing have a lesser utility in terms of providing funds for charitable causes. Whether they sell them, whether they rent them, whether they rehabilitate them -- I would think they would look to maximizing their value."

Mr. Levi said he believes the 27-mile light rail line scheduled to begin operating along a stretch of Howard Street by early 1992 may provide an incentive for the trustees to upgrade their downtown properties. "I think light rail will have an incredible impact, even more than the subway, because of its visible nature," he said. "I think the area is going to go through tremendous changes."

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