Struggling market In decline: Once a community hub, Belvedere Square has more and more vacant stalls and storefronts.

January 08, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Belvedere Market opened nine years ago as a centerpiece of the $12 million Belvedere Square shopping and office complex, with merchants selling fresh food and gourmet products from stalls in what was to be an upscale version of Lexington Market.

For years, the market fulfilled its promise and became a shopping and social center in North Baltimore. But go into it now, and you'll see mostly empty spaces.

Only three of the dozen or so original stalls remain, along with a consignment crafts store that opened about a year ago. Five storefronts on each side of the market entrance stand vacant.

"It's been a gradual decline over the last three years," said Suzy Maria, manager of Velleggia's Casa di Pasta, one of the remaining merchants in the market. This used to be a hangout and now it's a morgue."

"We're sticking it out," said Gary Hein, owner of Old World Gourmet. "The local clientele doesn't want us to leave. But you find it gets more and more difficult to find reasons to stay."

Cheryl Zetlmeisl, owner of Village Flower Mart in Hampden, moved out of her stall in the front of the market on New Year's Eve.

"Ultimately, declining sales and the collapse of the market concept is what forced us out. The market concept brought foot traffic in for all the other merchants," she said. "I don't think anybody was pushed out. You just weren't encouraged to stay, and with declining sales, most of us ultimately decided we couldn't stay."

Belvedere Square, a 103,500-square-foot complex that opened in includes the market, other shops, offices and a free-standing Chili's Grill & Bar that straddle Belvedere Avenue east of York Road. It was partly financed with a $1.8 million Urban Development Action Grant loan, of which approximately $550,000 is still owed to the city.

At its height, Belvedere Market included a butcher, a baker, a seafood vendor, a greengrocer and a flower shop.

"You bumped into everyone down there. It was truly a community hub for the north-central Baltimore area," said Catherine Evans, president of the Belvedere Improvement Association.

"For anybody who knew the place in its heyday, to go down there the last few years has been depressing," she said. "It is absolutely topic No. 1 among all the neighbors around here. It's because everyone feels the personal sense of loss for what it was and what it's meant for this area."

The exodus of merchants has some of the remaining shop owners wondering whether the market itself is in danger of closing, perhaps giving way for one large tenant to move into the space. Representatives from Thornhill Management, which manages the property for owner James J. Ward III, said the entire Belvedere Square shopping center is in a period of transition, similar to changes occurring in other retail market places.

"What we are seeing at Belvedere Square in general, with some tenants remaining, taking larger space, and leaving, is a reflection of what we are seeing across the board in the retail marketplace across the region," said Melanie Panos Ortel of Panos Ortel Associates, publicists for Belvedere Square.

No decision has been made to abandon the marketplace concept, she said.

"Right now we're repositioning Belvedere Square itself," she said. "There are no plans afoot at this time to vacate the market as a request of management."

George Panos, who manages Belvedere Square, said he has been negotiating with tenants who may move into larger spaces and with businesses that have expressed interest in moving into Belvedere Square. He expects to announce changes in several weeks. "We're going through the same thing that Cross Keys went through," Mr. Panos said, referring to changes in the North Baltimore residential and shopping center.

"The market is like a breeding ground for businesses," he said. "Some grow into larger businesses, some stay the way they are and some, unfortunately, don't make it."

Some of the former and current tenants blame the management company for the decline, saying it charged rents that were too high and did little to promote the market.

But Rosemary and Tom Thompson, owners of The Coffee Mill and one of the original market tenants, say the change is just an economic fact of life.

"I have a real problem with blaming Thornhill Properties. I don't think that's appropriate," Mrs. Thompson said. "I think everyone who left Belvedere Square has their own story to tell and those stories are individual and complex.

"I can tell you that my numbers at Belvedere Square are still very good. We just had a great Christmas," she said.

Although their business is doing well, the Thompsons realize that others have had financial difficulties, and they do not believe the market will continue in its present form.

"If it's around, it's going to be on a limited basis, because the truth of the matter is if a guy comes in trying to make a meat market go or a greengrocer go, there's just not enough profit. The supermarkets just crunch them with the profit margin," said Mr. Thompson, who added that he is committed to staying in the neighborhood, although perhaps in a larger space in the complex.

"Now it's the next phase of whatever's going to happen," he said. "And I don't know what that's going to be. It's not going to stay the same way forever."

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