Community criticizes Belvedere center plan

Councilman's proposal would allow larger businesses in area

January 27, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Northeast Baltimore City Councilman Robert Curran sparked a storm of community criticism by introducing an amendment to Belvedere Square's planned unit development (PUD) to fit landlord's James J. Ward's most recent expansion plan.

The 3rd District city councilman, whose legislation would change the area's zoning to allow larger businesses, insisted he was not advocating Ward's proposal to make way for a new large grocery market and a chain drugstore -- mostly likely a Metro and a Walgreen's.

"This bill is meant to jump-start an open process," Curran said in the City Council chamber Monday. Because the Belvedere Square shopping center continues to decline, he added, "there's a sense of urgency [that] something has to happen."

Some residents denounced Curran's legislation as opposing community will. In a November planning forum attended by Ward and community members, residents said they favor a pedestrian-friendly environment of small shops in the commercial corridor along York Road near Northern Parkway.

`Great concerns'

Outside City Council chambers, rookie 3rd District City Councilman Kenneth Harris Sr. said he could not support Curran's legislation because "the community has raised some great concerns." Harris is a member of the council's land-use committee, which will hold hearings on the matter.

Sandy Severance, one of about 30 Belvedere Improvement Association members who attended the City Council meeting, said, "There is no trust there. Jim Ward is leaving desolation in his wake."

Last week, the Belvedere Square Action Group, a collection of more than 100 neighbors that meets Thursdays to discuss the area's future, wrote Curran a letter requesting that he reconsider introducing the PUD legislation, saying Ward had "stonewalled" the community: "We do not know how Ward's proposals and plans might affect our homes and lives, both during construction and afterward."

Ward, who opened Belvedere Square amid fanfare in 1986, said in an interview that he felt unfairly blamed for the rising number of Belvedere Square's vacancies, some of which resulted from nationwide chain closures. "I became the bad guy. We're not talking about a nuclear power plant here," he said, adding: "I'll walk away if Jim Ward is the problem. I'd be willing to sit down with city officials."

He said he encountered similar resistance when he built the once-successful outdoor and indoor marketplace.

Among other possibilities, Ward said, he has answered an advertisement for federal government office space to fill one of the empty buildings, but has not received a response.

Catherine Evans, president of the Belvedere Improvement Association, said the group would have to see Ward's office space plan before formulating an opinion on it but said large-scale retail would destroy the neighborhood's residential fabric.

Not everyone in the area opposes Ward's retail proposal. The Govanstown Business Association, made up of 20 York Road merchants, has endorsed the Ward plan, said its executive director, Susan Hodges.

Seth Harry, an architect who drafted a design to present to the Belvedere Square Action Group two weeks ago, told them it is almost impossible to sustain a successful shopping center without at least two large "anchor" stores as a draw.

`Get more realistic'

"Meaningful dialogue has broken down," he said. "At some point, everybody needs to get more realistic."

The community design consultant scheduled to address the Action Group tonight, Marian Gillis, said she will recommend mediation for the polarized situation.

Based on her experience in redesigning the Harford Road corridor, Gillis said, "It's not clear what the community role is" in Belvedere Square.

She added, "Smart neighborhoods who get organized have an opportunity like never before, if they can organize around a common vision," she said.

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