Anxiety, ire on west side

Hatter: If Baltimore acquires Lou Boulmetis' property for a redevelopment project, his 70-year-old family business might have to bow out.

January 28, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

He was pressing his foot against the pedal of the puff iron in his family's 70-year-old hat shop, blasting steam from a tool that looks like an ancient bicycle seat to shape a Humphrey Bogart-style fedora.

The door buzzer sounded. It was the mail carrier, delivering a letter advising him the city would acquire and demolish Hippodrome Hatters, at 15 N. Eutaw St., as part of its effort to rebuild the depressed west side of downtown Baltimore.

Lou Boulmetis, a third-generation hatter thriving despite the death of nearby department stores, is one of 15 business owners for whom the clock started ticking Saturday for what could be their final days.

It is a time of anxiety, irony and some hope for merchants who have kept their faith in the city while others have fled to the suburbs.

The darkened vaudeville-era Hippodrome Theater across the street from Hippodrome Hatters might soon open again, with Gov. Parris N. Glendening this week pledging $21.5 million for its renovation as part of his proposed fiscal 2001 budget.

But it's unclear whether Boulmetis and the other merchants will be around to see the street again bathed in light, as it was in the days when his Greek immigrant grandfather, Louis "Pops" Boulmetis, cleaned a hat for Frank Sinatra when he stopped by before a performance.

As the first phase of an effort to revitalize the neighborhood, the city is encouraging developers to build hundreds of apartments and dozens of shops in two places: on the block across from the Hippodrome, bounded by Fayette, Baltimore, Howard and Eutaw streets; and along Lexington Street Mall between Howard and Liberty streets.

There is cause for optimism, not only for the neighborhood's economy but also for the merchants that might be displaced. The developers proposing to build the $54 million, 334-apartment Centerpoint housing and retail complex by 2002 by demolishing and renovating Boulmetis' block are talking about renting Hippodrome Hatters a space in their new complex.

Some of the other longtime merchants might also be given a chance to return after construction is complete.

They might have to pay more rent per month than they're paying now, but they would receive discounted rates compared to those charged new stores in the complex, city officials and developers have said.

Committee assembled

Mayor Martin O'Malley assembled a committee this month to propose ways the city could provide financing to help merchants move or return after the project is complete. That group is expected to report back next month.

But Boulmetis is still angry that the city is seizing his property so that a developer can rent a space back to him. And despite O'Malley's promises to help, he is nervous that he might go out of business during the two years of construction, when Hippodrome Hatters is housed at an unknown location in temporary quarters.

"When I saw that letter arrive, I thought to myself, `This certainly can't be good news,' " said Boulmetis. "When I read it, I was very angry, very disappointed. But I still hold out the hope that Mayor O'Malley will make everything right."

Little choice

The Jan. 21 letter from Baltimore Development Corp. said Boulmetis would receive an offer for his property within seven days.

The city has hired two appraisers to determine a fair value for each of the buildings to be condemned, said Sharon Grinnell, the agency's chief operating officer.

If the owners refuse to sell, a law passed in May gives the city the power to condemn the properties, remove the shopkeepers and let them argue over compensation in court.

O'Malley, who voted against the condemnation law as a city councilman, said Wednesday that he is trying to do what he can for the merchants.

Despite the possibility of paying more rent, O'Malley said, the merchants could earn more profits from the tens of thousands of people walking past on their way to the renovated theater.

"It will be a business decision for the merchants," O'Malley said. "Not all of them will be able to stay. But if they are able to come up with the additional rent, they could realize additional returns. And this could mean a good future for them."

Maria Johnson, president of Banc of America Community Development Corp., which is proposing to build the Centerpoint complex, said the reopening of the theater and the creation of hundreds of apartments will bring more business to everyone in the city.

"To have a Broadway-quality performing arts venue in Baltimore, bringing in some 400,000 visitors a year, can have nothing but a positive impact on the city's future," said Johnson.

A relic

Even if Hippodrome Hatters ends up renting a space in the new retail complex, the demolition of their more than a century old building will mean the end of a piece of history.

The shop is a relic of an era when Baltimore was a center for men's suit manufacturing. Back then, men were expected to wear a fedora with the right crease.

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