Mayoral hopefuls differ on west side

Candidates divide support of downtown business leaders

Howard Street corridor

August 26, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

While critics of Baltimore mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley have predicted he would be the "downtown mayor," focused mostly on helping developers, he was one of only four city councilmen who voted against a proposed $350 million redevelopment of downtown's west side.

And while City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III describes himself as the mayoral candidate fighting for disadvantaged people, he sponsored the legislation that will allow the eviction of dozens of minority shop owners so developers can rebuild the Howard Street retail corridor.

It's no wonder downtown leaders are divided over the mayor's race.

All three major Democratic candidates, including Carl Stokes, say they support the measures business people view as critical to the rejuvenation of the downtown economy: granting tax breaks to developers, building more parking spaces and fighting nuisance crimes that drive away customers.

"The downtown business community is really split in this election," said Donald Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "You can find supporters of all three candidates -- and I don't think you can call any of them the `downtown' candidate."

One of the few differences among the candidates on downtown policy is in their positions on the west-side redevelopment project, which would demolish many old buildings and add hundreds of new apartments and stores in an 18-block area east of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Stokes, a former school board member from East Baltimore, says he would push forward on the west-side project if he's elected mayor -- as long the city fairly compensates the shopkeepers who are forced to move.

David F. Tufaro, the best-funded Republican mayoral candidate and a developer from Roland Park, says the City Council went too far in allowing the condemnation of more than 100 buildings. He says he would revise the legislation if he's elected mayor.

"I am unhappy that there has not been a higher priority placed on preserving the historic buildings in the area and retaining the existing small businesses," said Tufaro. "This strikes me as the kind of old-fashioned urban renewal projects that have really done damage to cities."

O'Malley, an attorney from northeast Baltimore, said he voted against the west-side project because he felt it would unfairly oust dozens of small business owners. He added that he knew his vote would not defeat the project.

O'Malley said his opposition to the plan helped convince the city's development agency, the Baltimore Development Corporation, (BDC), to preserve as many shops as possible. But he said he would not take the same activist role as mayor.

O'Malley said he is now "very much in favor" of the redevelopment effort and would try to make it work if he's elected. He said he would not try to save all of the existing businesses, but would seek city funding to move shopkeepers displaced by the construction.

"I thought the original west-side plan had too much of the wholesale bulldozer approach to it," said O'Malley. "By not committing my vote, I forced it to become a better plan by forcing some concessions on preservation."

O'Malley also supports creation of a West Side Development Corporation to lead the project and assume responsibilities now held by the BDC.

The major stakeholders in the project -- including the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos -- have been working quietly to create a development organization focused exclusively on the west-side project.

Advocates of such a group argue that the city's development agency is too overworked and unfocused to do a good job leading the west-side project.

Bell said that he might support the creation of a development agency focused on the west side as long as it answers to the mayor and City Council.

"I was one of the designers of the west-side development plan, and I think it's a great starting point for an explosion of business activity expanding from the Inner Harbor west through downtown," Bell said.

The City Council president said it's crucial for the city to move quickly, while the economy is strong, and encourage developers to build hundreds of apartments downtown. The residential growth would boost the number of pedestrians in the area and help merchants.

Bell also said the city should give money to shopkeepers displaced by the west-side project to help them move.

Stokes said he would like to pursue the west-side project as long as the city preserves more architecturally significant buildings. Legislation already guarantees the protection of 20 buildings, including the vaudeville-era Hippodrome theater and the former Stewart's department store.

"We also want to make sure that merchants who have struggled and worked hard to run shops in the area are held harmless. If they are bought out, we want them to receive a fair price for their business," said Stokes.

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