Despair and Hope in Baltimore

July 07, 1992

The recession continues to topple institutions that once defined Baltimore. The latest to fall is Hamburgers. After 142 years in downtown, it is closing its Charles Center showroom. The clothing company's 12 other stores in the metropolitan area are expected to follow, but only after they are untangled from current leases.

Regrettable as Hamburgers' demise is, its departure from the Charles Center site is not without possibilities. For some years now, urban planners have argued that the overhanging structure across Fayette Street that houses Hamburgers is a visual and physical barrier that separates retail stores, banks and the Omni International Hotel from the main business district. There may be some merit to that argument. In any event, if there is a need to seriously consider a redesign of that portion of Charles Center, the time clearly is now.

Nearby, the fate of the venerable Lord Baltimore Hotel hangs in the balance as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. attempts to secure a sale. The FDIC picked up the 66-year-old renovated grand hotel for just $6.85 million in January, after the former owner defaulted on a $22 million loan.

Again, here is a new opportunity. When the FDIC finally sells the Lord Baltimore, it is likely to be for a price low enough to make numbers work for the new owner, particularly with today's low interest rates. This is already happening at the old Belvedere Hotel, which is panting its way back from the graveyard of white elephants.

The Belvedere, once the city's top hostelry, was victimized by its location: It is even farther away from the glittering Inner Harbor than the Lord Baltimore. But after a protracted saga of restarts and failures, the Belvedere was sold for a price so low that it became an attractive buying opportunity for centrally located residential or commercial space.

Its well-appointed rooms have been remodeled into condominium suites, most of which have been sold. Three of the hotel's restaurants have been sold, as well as most of the lower-level retail space. Now, Tom Stuehler, owner of the La Fontaine Bleu catering business, has leased several of the hotel's grand ballrooms and banquet halls and plans to reopen ** them to the public.

Baltimore's downtown is not immune to America's wrenching economic restructuring. And, as in the past, some investors' misfortunes are turning into opportunities of a lifetime for others.

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