West-side renewal plan OK'd

City Council approves $350 million project, largest in 20 years

`It's really a beginning'

8-year effort to bring new apartments, shops to sagging downtown

May 04, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

With little fanfare, the Baltimore City Council approved yesterday a $350 million plan to renovate the west side of downtown, the largest urban revitalization effort since the Inner Harbor project two decades ago.

Downtown merchants who face losing their businesses wept and sighed as the council voted 15-4 to support a plan that calls for the city to condemn 110 properties along an 18-block stretch. The move allows the city to begin buying and assembling large tracts of land in hopes of luring major developers to reinvest in Baltimore's sagging downtown core.

The eight-year resuscitation plan, designed by Baltimore's most prominent downtown property owners, is expected to add 2,600 apartments and hundreds of new street-level shops to downtown. City planners hope the effort -- to be paid for through private investment -- will restore around-the-clock vibrancy to a once stellar shopping region crippled by a 50-year exodus of city residents.

"It's really a beginning," said West Baltimore Council Vice President Agnes B. Welch, who guided the renewal legislation through the council. "I think it's exciting."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has called the project the most exciting of his 12-year tenure, is expected to sign the bill into law within the next few weeks. Affected merchants, who operate everything from hat shops to electronics stores, will be allowed to remain in their shops until after the Christmas holidays. The city will buy the first properties early next year.

Despite pledges from city business leaders to help shop owners who want to remain downtown with relocation and financing, merchants were not hopeful that their businesses will survive yesterday's council action.

"How are we going to start over?" said Young Cho, a 55-year-old West Lexington Street beauty shop owner from Korea who has three other family members with downtown businesses on the condemnation list. "We have no place to go."

Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, held 10 months of meetings with resi dents and city leaders on the plan. Sharon R. Grinnell, BDC senior development officer, said yesterday that the council vote will allow the agency to move forward in buying the properties and starting the renewal.

Historic preservationists also grimaced at the council vote. Groups such as Baltimore Heritage Inc. and Preservation Maryland called for turning the targeted region into a historic district that would save as many buildings as possible.

Such status would have allowed developers to renovate buildings -- some close to 200 years old -- to take advantage of tax credits while preserving Baltimore's red-brick shop history.

Downtown renewal advocates promised in the draft of the final bill to save as many historically significant buildings as possible. Although historic preservationists noted that the measure provides no guarantees, they welcomed the pledge, said William J. Pencek Jr., the president of Baltimore Heritage.

Business owners affected by the first phase of the plan include those with shops surrounded by West Baltimore, North Eutaw, West Fayette and North Howard streets. North Howard will be redeveloped as part of the plans to renovate the 1914-vintage Hippodrome Theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. The state has agreed to help the city restore the historic vaudeville venue with a $53 million overhaul to create a performing arts center.

The other chunk of downtown property targeted for the first phase of renewal will be shops bounded by West Lexington, North Liberty and Clay streets and Park Avenue. The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the $1.9 billion philanthropic organization that proposed the west downtown renewal, has submitted a $71 million development proposal to transform its former Stewart's department at Howard and Lexington Streets into a telemarketing center, apartment complex and parking garage.

The foundation, which owns about 6 percent of the property in the targeted region, began exploring the renewal about three years ago after downtown property values plummeted.

After paying for a comprehensive study of the area, the Weinberg group formed the West Side Task Force to back the plan and persuade the city to use its condemnation powers. The task force included such powerful business leaders as Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos and officials from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

In addition to condemnation, the bill requires remaining shop owners in the district to meet more stringent architectural rules.

The plan recently received a financial boost from NationsBank, which pledged to set aside $100 million for development and small business loans in the project area. The city will provide about $30 million for area improvements and purchasing condemned properties.

Judy Boulmetis, who with her husband operates the Hippodrome Hatters shop on North Eutaw Street, sighed at the council vote that will sweep the business off the block after 70 years. "Oh well," Boulmetis said. "All we can do is hope for the best."

In other council action:

* Northeast Councilman Robert Curran introduced a bill that would reimpose the one-year residency requirement for the city comptroller and council president. The General Assembly recently approved a bill reducing the residency requirement for mayoral candidates from one year to six months, a measure that also affected the city's other two top elected positions.

* Southwest Councilman Norman A. Handy submitted a companion bill to recent state legislation giving the city additional powers to condemn abandoned and blighted properties.

* Northwest Councilwoman Helen Holton introduces a measure that would create an 11-member committee to monitor and aid small businesses throughout Baltimore.

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