Little Italy in uproar over store Tire and auto shop could take over familiar Pastore's site

February 16, 1997|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

In Little Italy, long famous for baked ziti and boccie, fine wine and fat cigars, old-timers seethe at the mere mention of the newest prospective neighbor: a tire and auto repair center at the gateway to Baltimore's best-known ethnic neighborhood.

Instead of the old Pastore's Wholesale Grocers with its painted "Baltimore's Famous Little Italy" greeting, most visitors' first glimpse of the neighborhood would be a Hillen Tire & Auto Service at Pratt and Albemarle streets.

As Hillen prepares to lease the vacant Pastore's, with city approval to open the auto repair shop, longtime residents and restaurateurs famous for agreeing to disagree have united in opposition. Appealing to the city zoning board, opponents say an auto repair center at the main entrance to Little Italy would drive away visitors and irreparably harm the image of the neighborhood and the city's downtown tourism district.

"It's like having at the entrance to your house an open utility closet with mops and brooms hanging as you come in," said Frank Velleggia, owner of the 60-year-old Velleggia's Restaurant, next to the Pastore's site. "It just doesn't make sense."

Velleggia, some other community leaders and Pastore's owner, Michael Pastore Sr., say they have a better idea for the gateway to Little Italy -- a parking garage.

Not your typical concrete monstrosity, mind you, but a tastefully done building that hardly looks like a garage, with Mediterranean-style columns and archways befitting a historic Italian enclave.

Pastore, who moved the store about nine years ago because it outgrew the space, has repeatedly made a case to the city administration for a five-story, 450-spot garage.

It would cost about $5 million and occupy the Pastore's site and an adjoining city-owned level parking lot along President Street, south of Pratt. Little Italy Parking Group -- a venture including developer John Chapman, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and RTKL Associates Inc. architects -- hopes to buy the city-owned lot or enter a partnership in which it would share profits with the city, Pastore said.

The administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke seemed to like the idea, Pastore said, and promised a feasibility study would be completed soon and a decision on the garage plan would follow.

That was more than eight years ago, and Pastore has been awaiting a decision since.

He has had architects draw detailed plans for the garage, arranged financing, met with city officials more times then he can count. All the while, he turned down offers to buy or lease his site from numerous developers whose proposals included a drug store, a seafood restaurant and a bar, he said.

"The city told us, 'Yes, it would be an ideal site, and we'll do a feasibility study,' " Pastore said. "Then nothing happened, and another year passed, and nothing happened, and another year passed. And all along, all we begged them to do was give us an answer, even if it's no. Then we would know that, at least."

Pastore said Hillen, being forced from its location at Hillen and Front streets by the state to make way for a juvenile justice center, approached him about the site last fall. Fed up, Pastore said, he moved forward with the Hillen deal, which received the required city permits last month.

He said he informed the city's economic development agency, Baltimore Development Corp., of his plans, and again requested an answer on the garage. It would come by Nov. 30, he says BDC told him. It didn't. Then BDC canceled a December meeting with Pastore, he said, and refused to respond to him throughout January.

Pastore said he still hopes for a garage on the site and has delayed signing the deal with Hillen mostly because of opposition from Little Italy residents, many of them his longtime friends.

Further complicating matters, the Little Italy Owner-Residents Association, a community group, strongly supports another parking garage on the other side of Little Italy, near Bank Street and Central Avenue. That would provide parking for Little Italy restaurant patrons and employees of Eisner & Associates Inc., an advertising agency negotiating to buy the old Bagby Furniture Co. warehouse at Fleet and Exeter streets.

But Gia Blatterman, a founding member of the community group, suggested demand for parking could sustain both parking garages. She pointed to Eisner, the Inner Harbor East development and planned downtown attractions, including the Columbus Center's exhibit hall, Port Discovery children's museum and the Power Plant retail and entertainment complex.

Schmoke acknowledged the city's delays but said the city now considers the Little Italy decision a priority and will decide on the Hillen and garage proposals by March 1.

"It has not been a simple matter," Schmoke said. "I understand the frustration of the folks down there, but we really have been working hard to bring this to conclusion."

BDC says it is still studying financial feasibility, traffic circulation, economic spinoff and community support for each proposal.

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