Proposal for west side of downtown advances

City Planning Commission votes unanimously to support revitalization

February 05, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The largest downtown redevelopment plan since the Inner Harbor about 20 years ago moved a step closer to fruition yesterday when the city Planning Commission voted unanimously to support an 18-block revitalization of the west side.

Over the objections of some shop owners and preservationists, the eight-member panel backed economic development officials who testified that the time is right to renew an urban core that has been long criticized as an eyesore.

"This is not a simple task before you," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. "But you should know that this is an important moment."

Approval to rebuild the area bordered by Baltimore, Madison, Greene and Cathedral streets is needed from another governmental body. The City Council will conduct a public hearing on the plan, which would link the Inner Harbor, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the Charles Center business district.

The planning commission's backing of the $350 million plan occurred a week after Gov. Parris N. Glendening expressed doubt over a key element of the renewal plan: the $53 million renovation of the Hippodrome Theater on North Eutaw Street.

Glendening and the legislature have been asked to contribute up to $25 million for the theater project, but have expressed concern that decay of surrounding blocks would inhibit the plan.

Supporters told the planning commission that its approval would send a clear signal to Annapolis that the city is serious about the renewal plan.

"The time to move is today," Brodie said.

The goal to create apartments, shops and other economic opportunities could create close to 3,000 jobs, proponents say.

The commission's approval did not please some shop owners, such as Lou Boulmetis, owner of Hippodrome Hatters at 15 N. Eutaw St.

Boulmetis is one of 127 property owners who could lose their businesses when the city acquires their properties to create large parcels to lure new development.

"In my heart of hearts, I believe it would be cruelly ironic that businesses that stayed through difficult times will be asked to leave," said Boulmetis, whose family has owned shops across from the Hippodrome for 70 years. "It is truly immoral.

"If you have the money, the power and the law on your side, you can do whatever you want."

Boulmetis and other merchants contend that the plan would benefit large downtown landowners, such as The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The foundation has proposed a $70 million mixed-use of apartments, shops and a telemarketing center for property in the Lexington Market area.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos also supports the west-side revitalization. Angelos is planning to build a $160 million hotel next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and intends to spend $20 million to revitalize Charles Center.

Preservation Maryland, Baltimore Heritage and other preservationists asked the planning commission to ensure that historic structures within the renewal area boundaries are preserved.

Preservationists want to create a historic downtown district much like New Orleans' French Quarter. Brodie and other development officials said they intend to work with developers to save viable historic properties.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, a member of the planning commission, sought to convince shop owners they would be able to relocate in the renewal area. "Try to look at this [as] half full," Spector told Boulmetis.

Mark Sendowski, who leases three downtown properties for his Inner City Records stores, supports the renewal plan in an area where about 25 percent of the properties are vacant.

"I believe the good merchants will survive and do better," he said. "I've seen [downtown] since 1987, and it's not getting better."

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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