Stunner of a Belvedere Square plan

Troubled developer's proposed expansion worries neighbors

June 15, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Frustrated residents of the Belvedere neighborhood in North Baltimore have for years been urging a city-funded developer to breathe new life into a failing -- and increasingly vacant -- Belvedere Square shopping complex.

The response to their pleas stunned them: an ambitious proposal, worth at least $35 million, that would require the purchase of about 40 homes, triple the size of the shopping corridor, and transform York Road south of Northern Parkway into a suburban-sized mall with boxy buildings, trendy boutiques and an ocean of parking spaces.

Also stunning is the source of the plan -- financially troubled developer James J. Ward III, who is in debt $5 million on the property. He was more in debt until last spring, when the city forgave a $1.7 million federal loan to his company used to develop the site in 1986.

Clinton R. Coleman, spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said excusing the loan last year was seen as the best possible way to revive Belvedere Square. He said the city's relationship with Ward was something Schmoke inherited.

"The forgiveness was an attempt to make a bad situation better," Coleman said. "It would be [the mayor's] preference that the original developer have nothing to do with any new project. But there's not a lot that can be done to prevent it."

Residents who believe Ward mismanaged the complex complain that the loan was the city's sole leverage to control Ward. And they fear his most recent proposal would erase the charm from their historic neighborhood.

"You can see what it does to the community -- it just decimates it," said Catherine Evans, president of the Belvedere Improvement Association. "Why not just bring a whole White Marsh in here? That's the way they think."

Ward could not be reached for comment. His planning consultant and spokesman, Alfred W. Barry III, painted a rosier picture of the project. Once overhauled, he said, Belvedere Square could attract big-name retailers and big-time tax dollars, helping the city compete with the suburbs for shoppers.

York Road, he said, would feel like a vibrant "Main Street USA."

The project has been proposed to city planners, but the planning department has yet to begin an official review. Developers stress the plan will be altered according to community input.

The City Council would have to pass an ordinance changing zoning to accommodate the project. Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents the area, said it is likely to be scaled back. Residents, she said, are unlikely to swallow such a metamorphosis of their neighborhood.

"The plan being circulated -- it's grandiose and totally conceptual," Spector said.

The Belvedere Improvement Association will revisit the issue at its meeting tomorrow night.

The plan calls for an expanded shopping district on both sides of York Road south of Belvedere Square. Retail space would increase from 100,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet and parking spaces would go from 377 to 1,200.

The Senator Theatre would get a handful of new theaters and be attached to a new row of businesses -- chic boutiques and family restaurants, says the developer. Two enormous box-shaped structures would be set off from the east side of York Road -- replacing part of Orkney Road -- and would house a 60,000-square-foot chain grocery store and a 25,000-square-foot retail store.

About 40 homes along Orkney Road and Rosebank Avenue would be purchased and razed -- the developer claims some residents have expressed willingness to sell -- and those two roads would be cut off from York Road by cul-de-sacs. The area would have space for offices, a bank and an elderly living residence.

Belvedere Square opened in 1986 and was thriving about 1990. Residents blame Ward for letting it deteriorate. Barry said an unwillingness among tenants to pay high enough rents was to blame. He also blamed the recession.

"They didn't go out of business just here, they went out of business at Harborplace," Barry said of Belvedere's chain stores.

Barry stressed that the new plan has drawn positive feedback from some communities and its only solid resistance from Belvedere. Evans, the Belvedere Improvement president, countered that the developers were drumming up their support from residents whose homes would not be knocked down. Milton A. Dugger Jr., departing president of the nearby Chinquapin Park Improvement Association, said the developers courted his organization last month.

"We were in general favorably disposed," Dugger said. "But when you start talking about houses, we can't speak for those people. I'm sure they'll have something to say."

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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