Library, grocer seeking compromise

January 14, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

A yellow cardboard sign stuck on a vending machine in a supermarket foyer offers a clue to the worries of many Highlandtown residents. "Save Our Store," it demands, circled by the signatures of dozens of area residents and a passionate message scribbled on it by one of them: "Seniors need a store close by where we don't have to go out of our way to get groceries!"

The sign, the signatures and the message are a reaction to plans for a regional library -- a high-tech, roughly 35,000-square-foot building -- scheduled to be built in Southeast Baltimore during the next two years.

Two months ago, the Enoch Pratt Free Library system was poised to take over the supermarket land and build there. After being stung by criticism for suggesting that the market close, the library is working to strike a deal with Avi Hershkovitz, who hopes to keep the Markets at Highlandtown, his 12-aisle grocery store, in business.

"I have my fingers crossed for a compromise," said Highlandtown-area City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., who has floated the equally unpopular idea of building the library on Patterson Park's southeast corner. "I don't want to force out one of the more viable businesses here. That's nuts."

This much is certain: The Highlandtown library will be built. Two multimillion-dollar bond issues passed by city voters since 1998 ensure it. But the question of where remains.

Replete with features such as a coffee bar, Internet connections and space for hundreds of visitors, it will be the first of four proposed regional libraries the city hopes to complete during the next 20 years.

The $8 million structure is envisioned as a key element in the effort to jump-start Highlandtown's sagging commercial district. Over the past two decades, the area that once was home to Baltimore institutions such as Haussner's restaurant, the Esskay meats factory and the Grand Theater has become known more for its down-at-the-heels collection of rent-to-own stores, pawn brokers and piercing shops.

It is hoped the regional library, which fits into a redevelopment puzzle that includes a cultural center being built at the old Patterson Theater and a new Walgreens, will help bring a bustle of activity to the roughly 10-block commercial strip on Eastern Avenue.

After spending about two years focusing on potential sites on the commercial corridor, the library system in November settled on a favorite: at Eastern Avenue and Eaton Street.

The rectangular lot is the perfect size and shape for the proposed library and faces Eastern Avenue, a key factor for community developers who want the library on the street, where most commercial activity exists.

The lot also is home of the Markets, the only supermarket on Eastern Avenue in the area.

The market owner, Hershkovitz, is happy where he is.

"It would not really make the most sense for me to move," he said, noting that his business is profitable and that he employs 35 people, most from the area.

"The whole process, until just very recently, made me feel like the businessman didn't matter, like I had no voice in what would happen to me," Hershkovitz said.

Hershkovitz, who until this week has said he would not consider city offers to buy or relocate his store, has owned his business for a dozen years and says he has about 11 years left on a long-term lease.

His customers, hundreds of whom have signed petitions saying they don't want the store to go, are vocal in their insistence that it not be put out of business.

"It makes me sick to think that we could lose the store," said Gloria Roger, 68, as she pushed her grocery cart through the market's meat section recently. "I'm like a lot of people in this neighborhood. We are older, many of us don't drive, and we count on this store because it is convenient. If the store goes, where are the older people going to shop?"

The two closest supermarkets to Hershkovitz's store are San-toni's Super Market, at Lombard and Eaton streets, about a half mile away, and Canton Safeway on Boston and O'Donnell streets, about a mile from the Markets.

An informal vote by about 100 community members at a public meeting in November at Our Lady of Pompei Roman Catholic Church favored tearing down the Markets at Highlandtown and putting the library there.

In the meeting, participants discussed all the sites studied by the library. Two other lots were strongly considered: the vacant Grand Theater and the Carrollton Bank on the east side of Conkling Street between Fleet Street and Eastern Avenue; and the 4000 block of Eastern Ave. between Grundy and Haven streets.

"We expressed a preference for the grocery store site and the people at the meeting agreed with the recommendation," said John Sondheim, who is supervising library construction. He added that the other sites are considered problematic. Some have more than one business for the city to buy or relocate, and others would cause design problems for construction.

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