City at odds with merchants over block plan

January 08, 1991|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

The ramshackle shopping strip in the 900 block of Whitelock St. is an annoyance to the many people who are attempting to strip years of neglect from Reservoir Hill.

An increasing flow of middle-class residents attracted by the in-town location and stock of once-fine townhomes is doing a lot to transform the neighborhood. The new residents renovate their homes, jolt the city into enforcing zoning and housing codes and press for better police protection.

Through all of this, the 900 block of Whitelock St. has remained an eyesore. But now the city has decided to settle the problem posed by the block once and for all: Buy it and knock it down.

The plan is for the city to acquire the entire 900 block and offer it for development. The plan comes after more than 20 years of failed attempts by city government to remove the block's blighting influence.

The police force periodically assigns foot patrol officers to the area and has designated the 900 block a "drug-free zone," which gives officers broad power to rouse loiterers. Police had barricades erected to restrict access to nearby alleys and off-street playgrounds and the block's pay phones cannot be used for incoming calls.

"We've put a lot of heat in there, but, unfortunately, I don't think we've been met with a lot of success," says Capt. Michael J. Andrews, deputy commander of the Central District.

The idea to totally redevelop the 900 block is backed by police and many community groups and frustrated residents. They say that, without Whitelock Street's row of tacky carryouts and liquor stores, many of the neighborhood's problems will disappear.

"The block creates a problem; not many people feel safe shopping in stores where the merchants operate behind Plexi-glass," says Bill Lee, president of the Upper Eutaw-Madison Block Association, which represents residents on the western edge of the neighborhood.

"[The plan] certainly won't hurt," Andrews agrees.

But merchants and some community activists view the plan as a mistake that will remove the stores and other services needed by the poor and leave the problems behind.

"When I first heard this, I thought it was so outrageous that it could not be true," says the Rev. Tom Composto, a Catholic priest who for years has held services and run social outreach programs from his basement chapel in the block. He also helps to run a free dental clinic upstairs from the chapel.

Composto said he thought the idea of demolishing Whitelock Street died after it surfaced in 1971. "They think to tear down the street, you get rid of all of your hoodlums," he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

Composto, who says he has invited developers to evaluate the street for new development in the past, fears that the city will never find someone to rebuild the block. "Nobody is going to come here," he says. "All you'll have left are the rats and the drug dealers."

But the city is confident of Whitelock Street's redevelopment potential and its plan is marching forward. The city has agreed to spend $331,000 to acquire nine of the 11 properties on the south side of the street, said William Toohey, a spokesman for the city Department of Housing and Community Development.

Plans to buy the properties on the north side of the street, where the chapel and several of the most popular stores are located, are temporarily on hold, although the city hopes to acquire the entire block by 1992, Toohey said.

"We are trying to upgrade that commercial area," Toohey explains. "We're trying to reverse what is becoming a more serious area of drug activity."

Before buying a property, the city sends two independent appraisers to set a price. The higher price then is paid to the building's owner. Business owners, most of whom rent, are offered relocation help. But they, nonetheless, see the city's plan as wrong-headed.

"This shopping strip isn't creating a monster," says Benita Schwartzman, who with her husband, Alfred, has run the dTC Brookfield Pharmacy for 12 years. "The monster is already created."

The Brookfield Pharmacy is one of the busiest stores on the block, which includes barber shops, fast-food carryouts, candy stores, a small grocery store and two stores that sell liquor.

Mr. Schwartzman -- known by almost everyone in the community as "Doc" -- says he fills 15,000 to 20,000 prescriptions a year. Most of them, he says, are for poor and elderly people who come to his Plexi-glass enclosed counter for their medicine.

"Those people would have to go all the way to Maryland Avenue and North Avenue [about a mile away] to fill prescriptions," Schwartzman says. "How are they going to be able to do that?"

The Schwartzmans, who live in Baltimore County, hire area residents as store clerks and pay thousands of dollars in city taxes and fees.

"We're not the cause of the problems out here," Mrs. Schwartzman says. "We are a Mom and Pop store. We pay our bills. We pay our taxes."

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