Howard St. project falls victim to costs city decision faulted

January 17, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

The city has abandoned plans to build a shopping center in lower Charles Village that planners had hoped would eliminate a blight of crumbling buildings and abandoned lots along Howard Street.

David K. Elam, director of development for the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, said yesterday that HCD officials decided in December the project was too costly.

"It's money, simply money," Mr. Elam said.

The city committed $1.2 million toward acquisition of land and demolition, but Mr. Elam was unable to say how much of that has already been spent.

The proposal had called for a supermarket and mall in the block bounded by Howard Street to the west, Maryland Avenue to the east, 21st Street to the north and 20th Street to the south. The decision to scrap it surprised and frustrated community leaders and elected officials, who said abandoning the plan would leave the neighborhood looking like a ghost town and would betray the community.

"What a tragedy," said Harry G. Dahl, vice president of the Charles Village Business Association.

Mr. Dahl initially opposed the city's decision to condemn buildings to make way for the shopping center, but he feels it would be better to complete the project than to just let it drop. "If you start something," he said, "you ought to finish it."

"I was shocked that it was discarded without more community input," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "I still think it is a good idea that we ought to pursue," she said.

Conceived in the last years of the administration of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the plan called for massive development from North Avenue to 22nd Street between Charles and Howard streets.

But after buying up several properties in the area beginning in 1988 -- and forcing several residents and businesses to move -- the city twice scaled back the plan because of increasing land acquisition costs, arriving last year at a more modest proposal.

Last month, however, city officials decided to pull the plug on the project altogether when a developer who was to build the shopping center offered less money for the land than the city was asking.

Mr. Elam said the developer, North/Howard Limited Partnership, initially asked the city to donate the land for the project so the firm would not have to purchase it; later, the company asked the city to accept a $200,000 bond that would mature in 15 years at $1.2 million.

Several people at a community meeting yesterday said the plan fell victim to indecision by the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, which two years ago used money earmarked for the project to help pay for a business park at Port Covington. The business park includes The Baltimore Sun's new printing plant.

They also said that city officials, who had asked community leaders to help them develop the shopping center plan, should have warned them that they were considering abandoning it.

Gus. E. Diakoulas, who owns several properties in the area, said city officials had persuaded him not to rent one building because it was to be condemned to make way for the shopping center. Now vacant, the building is costing him more than $2,000 per month in mortgage payments.

"They are worse off now than when the city decided to get involved," Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, whose district includes the area, said of business owners. "The community is doing its share -- it's the city that is reneging."

Mr. Elam said the city's decision to abandon the project was unrelated to its decision to approve plans for a shopping center at the old Green Spring Dairy, about a mile north of the Charles Village site.

He said the city will try to sell the land to two businesses in the area that are interested in expanding.

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