Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration is negotiating with developers to try to discourage them from evicting merchants from a planned reconstruction of the struggling west side of downtown.
The newly elected mayor, who as a City Councilman voted in May against an ordinance allowing the condemnation of more than 100 buildings as part of the redevelopment effort, wants developers to include as many threatened shopkeepers as possible, Tony White, his spokesman, said yesterday.
Three developers have proposed building hundreds of apartments and dozens of shops across from the closed Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street.
"The mayor feels strongly that the merchants who have been there and weathered the storm should not just be kicked out," said White, who added that the mayor will make an announcement soon on the west-side project.
"The mayor is adamant about trying to find a way to eliminate the feelings of impending doom that some of these merchants may be feeling," he said.
The city's economic development agency, which has banned the public and local merchants from meetings about the project, voted in a closed-door session yesterday to recommend that the mayor choose one of three development groups competing for the block across from the Hippodrome.
The groups, led by A & R Development Corp. of Baltimore, Home Properties of Rochester, N.Y., and a branch of the Bank of America based in Maryland, have proposed building shops and apartments in the block bounded by Baltimore, Howard, Eutaw and Fayette streets.
Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer of Baltimore Development Corp., refused to say how the board voted or discuss what the project might include.
The board revealed its recommendation to the mayor.
But the name of the developer was not released because the O'Malley administration is negotiating to encourage the developer to keep some existing merchants, or welcome them back, after construction is complete.
If the mayor doesn't like the developers' proposal, he might refer the matter back to the Baltimore Development Corp. board for further discussion, according to city officials.
Lou Boulmetis, owner of the 70-year-old Hippodrome Hatters on Eutaw Street, which could be demolished as part of the project, said he is relieved to hear that the mayor is concerned about the merchants.
"I have every confidence in the mayor," Boulmetis said. "I've said to him, `Martin, I know you'll do the right thing.' And I believe the people of Baltimore believe that about him, too, or else they wouldn't have elected him."
Tony Rodgers, development manager for A & R Development, said sketches for his company's proposal include retail space for a hat shop on the first floor -- although the proposal doesn't name a tenant.
"We would certainly like to incorporate some of the existing merchants in there," Rodgers said. "There will be some merchants that will not be allowed to return."
Representatives of the other two development groups could not be reached to comment yesterday.
A fourth developer has proposed building apartments and shops near Lexington and Howard streets.
Tyler Gearhart, director of Preservation Maryland and a member of a citizen advisory panel for the west-side project, said it's wrong that the city is using the public power of condemnation -- which allows the city to seize private property -- in a secretive manner, without allowing the public to know what's going on.
"The Baltimore Development Corp. meeting today was closed, the [advisory committee] meetings are closed, and now a secret recommendation is going to the mayor," Gearhart said. "I don't think that's right."