FIRST-TERM Councilwoman Helen Holton is to be commended for getting the City Council's economic development committee involved in examining why 10-year-old Belvedere Square has turned from a delightful North Baltimore marketplace into a retail complex pockmarked by vacant spaces and teetering on failure.
In a city of narrowing shopping choices, the difficulties of this center are truly a troubling sign, because it is surrounded by middle- and upper middle-class residential areas. If a concentration of food stores and boutiques cannot thrive in that kind of area, what hope is there for the rest of the city?
When Belvedere Square opened at the corner of York Road and Belvedere Avenue, it seemed the answer to prayers of neighborhoods from Homeland to Cedarcroft. Consisting of four buildings anchored by the old Hochshild Kohn department store, it was designed to accommodate 36 tenants, offering a mix of products and services that ranged from fruits, vegetables and seafood to shoes and furniture. It was a miniature version of Lexington Market with the upscale look of Harborplace, down to the green roofs.
Troubles soon started. The owner, James J. Ward III, had difficulty making payments on the $12 million complex. Then a bevy of name tenants left the center. Among them was Faidley's Seafood, which retreated to concentrate on its Lexington Market operation, and a farm store that decided to discontinue retailing. But also in the group were shops which simply moved to Drumcastle Center, about a mile to the north, where they continue thriving.
Belvedere Square, for its part, became a revolving door of retailers, who kept complaining about rents and other fees and inadequate promotion. The troubled center, according to residents, began having an adverse effect on house sales and investment in the area.
Why is Belvedere Square having problems when shopping centers on the Baltimore County side are thriving? The explanation seems to be a developer who has increasingly taken a hands-off attitude, particularly after his move to Florida. The city is right in trying to apply pressure on him. After all, Belvedere Square was made possible by a federal grant from the city -- and the owner has not repaid it.