City seeks renewal of Howard St. Agency would raze about 100 buildings in old shopping district

Some owners vow to fight

Development panel plans apartments, commercial uses

March 29, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

In one of the largest renewal efforts in Baltimore in more than two decades, the city's economic development agency is seeking permission to condemn nearly 100 buildings in the rundown and depressed Howard Street-Park Avenue shopping district.

Apartments, offices and other commercial uses are planned. While no acquisition or demolition is yet under way, development officials want to control the sites for a future plan that would dovetail with reconstruction under way at the University of Maryland, the Hippodrome Theatre and Charles Center. The city is also weighing replacement of the aging Baltimore Arena - possibly on its site at Howard and Baltimore streets.

"Howard Street's been limping along for a long time," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "I haven't used the word 'blight' for a long time, but it applies here."

Under the condemnation plan, such faded landmarks as the former Congress Hotel, Oriole Cafeteria and Schleisner women's wear store would be affected, as would the present Planned Parenthood building. The properties, generally 19th-and early 20th-century commercial buildings, stretch from Madison Street on the north to Saratoga on the south.

"We want the authority to condemn these properties. Once we get it, we would use that power judiciously," Brodie said.

Owners were notified recently of the condemnation action, which requires approval by the City Council. Legislation is expected to be introduced tomorrow. Some property owners have vowed to fight.

"I went through all the headaches of the street construction and the light rail. I will not let those bureaucrats come in and change my life," said David Duke, who owns several properties in the 300 block of N. Howard St. "They want to scoop up all the property for nothing."

"I've been told there are 98 pieces of property owned by about 70 individuals," said Milt Rosenbaum, president of the Market Center Merchants' Association. "There is general agreement here about the plan, but there are bound to be people who won't like this."

"If they're doing anything, it's going to be five years away," said Sean Coughlin, president of Liberty Federal Savings and Loan Association, whose headquarters is on the condemnation list. "In the long run, I agree with what they are trying to do," he said.

Planned Parenthood has "a very large space, and we welcome the opportunity to see if there's another building in the area that still meets our needs," said Malcolm Leggett, the organization's finance chief.

The Planned Parenthood building, constructed in 1926 as a five-floor duckpin bowling alley, has been discussed as a possible site for apartment conversion.

The affected buildings are grouped just north of the city's old Howard Street department stores, which began closing their doors in 1977.

The properties include structures facing both sides of the 300 block of N. Howard St. and the east side of the 400 block, as well as buildings along the west side of Park Avenue's 300 and 400 blocks. The former Congress Hotel, built in 1903 as the Hotel Kernan, faces Franklin Street, west of Howard.

Brodie said many of the buildings are "in very bad shape." The Park Avenue buildings, once home to a thriving Asian community, are in "awful condition," he said.

Several years ago, the 400 block of Howard St. - between Mulberry and Franklin - was touted for artists' housing. That plan seems to be in doubt. "I'm trying to make the economics work there," Brodie said.

He said the condemnation action was taken to coincide with a major study of the Howard Street corridor - as well as adjoining west side neighborhoods - being conducted on behalf of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the area's controlling property owner. Brodie said the study, announced last year, would be completed by midyear.

"The Weinberg study is crucial," he said.

Since letters announcing the condemnation proposal went out two weeks ago, one property owner has been given a partial waiver.

Brodie said he has written a letter to the owners of the 1868 theatrical costume house of A.T. Jones, assuring its owner that his buildings would be not taken as long as the company occupies the site.

"If all the buildings along Howard Street were this well maintained, I wouldn't worry," Brodie said.

"We were devastated when we got the condemnation notice, but now we're relieved," said George Goebel, the theatrical costumer at 704 and 708 N. Howard St. Goebel said his company has been in the 700 block of N. Howard St. since 1955.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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