Rich past, new hopes

Restoration: Neighbors miss the variety of shops that existed at Belvedere Square and await action to revive the area.

January 06, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Catherine Evans misses walking to neighboring Belvedere Square for a charming mix of locally owned, well-established businesses that delivered old-fashioned service. Evans and her neighbors made several trips a day for its butchers and bakers, fruit sellers and florists.

She still shops at many of her favorites, but today she has to drive all over Greater Baltimore to find the same high-quality produce, gourmet carryout, records and gifts. Since the square opened in 1986, about 40 businesses have fled the struggling North Baltimore shopping center at Belvedere Avenue and York Road, leaving a half-vacant shopping center once touted for its marketplace format and Harborplace flair.

In recent months, developer James J. Ward III has offered a variety of costly proposals to revive the square, from razing 40 adjacent homes to make room for a suburban-sized mall to his most recent plan to tear down more than half the strip and build a Walgreen drugstore and a Metro Food Market.

Those proposals conflict with zoning and planning laws, so Ward needs a City Council ordinance signed by the mayor before he can bring in the wrecking balls. A proposed zoning amendment will be introduced at the City Council's Jan. 24 meeting.

At 7: 30 tonight at Govans Presbyterian Church in the 5800 block of York Road, nationally known urban planner Seth Harry will present his take on what should become of the complex and area. As part of a compromise reached late last year, he was invited to draft a report with community input to find common ground among the developer, residents and merchants.

Ward said yesterday that he's trying to create a success story.

"It was a disaster, we fixed it up, and it was great," he said. "All we want to do is do that again, but the retail market has changed, and we can't do it the same way."

Neighbors and former merchants say the square has been left to languish by a developer who moved to Florida. And they say the revitalization -- or ultimate ruin -- of Belvedere Square will signal things to come in Baltimore.

"Many people view how this goes as a barometer on how business is going to be conducted in this city," said Evans, a 10-year resident and president of the Belvedere Improvement Association.

"Who are we going to be as a city?" she asked. "Are we going to be a proud community that stands up for high quality and maintains an infrastructure to support that? Or are we simply going to fall all over ourselves for any business proposal that comes our way?"

In its heyday, Belvedere Square offered a high-end mix of mostly locally owned shops established in other parts of the city whose names drew clientele from across the metropolitan area. From Faidley's Seafood and Utz Fresh Potato Chips to Frank Velleggia's Casa di Pasta, business owners and market vendors knew their customers' names and tastes.

"It was the quality and the charm of the businesses that drew people," Evans said. "And it wasn't just one of them -- it was 20 of them. It was a medley."

Belvedere Market opened in June 1986, anchoring the square with a miniature version of Lexington Market with the upscale look of Harborplace -- right down to the green roofs.

The market was soon joined by specialty shops and Maryland's first Chili's restaurant. That summer, other upscale stores opened in the long-vacant Hochschild Kohn building and along both sides of Belvedere Avenue.

"We were real pleased with our initial years of business at Belvedere Square," said Tom Thompson, the last of the square's original tenants to leave. After 13 years, he closed the Coffee Mill in September. His first Coffee Mill, in Hampden, continues to percolate.

Trouble started soon after the square opened.

Ward struggled to fill the stores and make payments on the $12 million complex. He declined yesterday to comment on his debt, saying only that he has poured more than $10 million into the project -- including more than $4.2 million of his own. City officials said he owes $5 million to $5.5 million on his mortgage beyond a $1.8 million government loan, which city officials forgave in 1998.

Tenants began to trickle out in 1991. Within five years, the square had become a revolving door of retailers who complained of high rent, unreasonable fees and inadequate promotion. Some say Ward drove merchants out, failing to meet obligations and offering leases only by the month.

When Pier 1 Imports left last month, Ward let the security staff go. Since then, some merchants say, Ward has been unreachable and maintenance appears to have lagged.

Ward said he managed month-to-month leases as a favor to tenants who could not meet rent payments and attributes the square's failure to a changing retail market, a changing city and a changing economy.

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