Irony built into plans to redevelop

Foundation supports process founder didn't

April 11, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Nine years after his death, Harry Weinberg still maintains a powerful grip on downtown Baltimore.

Over the next two weeks, the City Council is expected to approve a bill condemning 127 downtown properties as part of a renewal project that city leaders say will rival the Inner Harbor. For shop owners set to lose their properties, the cruel irony of the plan is that it is being initiated by the billion-dollar charitable foundation Weinberg left behind.

Many have held their businesses long enough to remember 30 years back when "Honolulu Harry" was a dominant force in Baltimore's downtown. City officials blamed Weinberg for dragging down property values by obstinately refusing repeated pleas to improve his 47 downtown buildings.

"The Weinberg real estate tactics have led to the deterioration of downtown," said Kelley Brohawn, a downtown commercial Realtor aiding merchants opposing the plan. "Harry Weinberg and the Weinberg Foundation are considered by many to be the worst commercial landlords in the city."

For city economic development officials, the past has little to do with the present. Today, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation holds $1.2 billion in assets and is the largest charitable group in the state, funding causes from homeless shelters to hospitals.

Whether to support a plan offered by a private group willing to dedicate up to $150 million of its money to spark a downtown resurgence is an easy decision for city officials.

"It's not fair to point at any property owner," said Baltimore Development Corp. President M. J. "Jay" Brodie, who served as city housing commissioner under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer during Weinberg's downtown reign. "Whatever people's view of history, the Weinbergs are interested in helping us to move forward and that is very positive."

Merchants whose futures are threatened by the redevelopment have a hard time ignoring the Weinberg history. An Austrian immigrant, Weinberg operated from a no-nonsense business strategy: "God isn't making any more land, so grab what you can and hold on to it."

By the time of his death at 82, Weinberg held key downtown properties that included the intersection of Howard and Lexington streets, once the heart of Baltimore because of the four department stores that filled its corners: Hecht's, Hutzler's, Stewart's and Hochschild Kohn.

Weinberg's family moved to South Baltimore in 1908 when he was 4. He never finished sixth grade because of constant schoolyard fights and spoke fractured English that even aides had a hard time understanding. Yet Weinberg had the Midas touch.

He started selling newspapers as a kid on Howard Street before the Depression. He later worked -- as did his four siblings -- at his father's automobile and fender repair shop near Camden Station. His first major business transaction came at 23, setting the pace for what would become a billion-dollar stock and land empire.

Seeing the exodus of city residents to the suburbs beginning in the late 1950s, Weinberg began collecting west-side downtown properties from Cathedral Street west to what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard, and from Monument Street to South Pratt Street. He purchased entire square blocks, including the old Stewart's department store building, which he bought in 1979 for $1 million in cash.

On the street where he once sold newspapers, he became the largest property owner.

Weinberg then sat on his properties. Through all the downtown renewal efforts, ranging from the Market Center Urban Renewal area in the 1970s to the creation of the Howard Street transit mall, frustrated city officials failed to budge Weinberg.

Even the dynamic Schaefer, credited with reinvigorating the city with the Inner Harbor, was unable to convince Weinberg to fix his properties, which served as a $50 million annual tax write-off. Schaefer told the downtown property king that the window to extend Inner Harbor prosperity through the center of downtown would not last long.

"Honolulu Harry Holds Up The Works," a 1985 headline from the old News American newspaper read.

"He was a very tough businessman," said Schaefer, who was elected Maryland's comptroller in November. "If he didn't see a profit in it, he didn't do it."

Weinberg viewed improving the properties as a waste of money because city residents were still flocking to the suburbs and the city was unwilling to help him line up tenants for the buildings. The public good, Weinberg once said, was the government's job.

"We tried," Schaefer said. "We found tenants for Hutzler's but we just couldn't find anyone for the Stewart's building."

In 1989, Forbes magazine listed Weinberg as the 70th richest man in America, referring to him as "combative, aggressive, litigious."

When he died, Weinberg shocked the city by leaving his $1 billion empire to the poor and elderly. The charitable foundation he quietly established with his wife, Jeanette, in 1957 instantly became the largest in the state and 12th in the nation.

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