Merchant's project riles some colleagues

Man who leads west-side group pursues own proposal

February 05, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

He was supposed to be representing merchants threatened by Baltimore's plans to demolish their businesses and replace them with new stores. But at the same time, Milt Rosenbaum was quietly seeking city approval to build his own $1 million shopping complex on the west side.

Rosenbaum, president of a merchants group called the Market Center Association, received tentative approval from the Baltimore Development Corp. this week to build a 10,000-square-foot retail complex on a city-owned lot near Lexington Market at Eutaw and Saratoga streets.

Some merchants call him a traitor. But Rosenbaum says the entire neighborhood will benefit from his project.

Many shopkeepers said they have been irritated at Rosenbaum for almost a year, after he testified in favor of the city ordinance that authorizes condemnation of dozens of buildings owned by members of his association. They nonetheless respected his right to speak his mind on the hotly contested urban renewal project.

But the merchants said they did not know about Rosenbaum's development project until this week, and added they were disturbed to learn he might have a financial interest in maintaining a cordial relationship with Baltimore's development agency.

"I think it's incredibly crooked," said Young Kim Robinson, co-owner of Beauty Plus at 400 W. Baltimore St., which is scheduled for condemnation. "He's going to be rich, but it's at the expense of the rest of us merchants."

Rosenbaum and his supporters say his strip of 10 stores will fill what has long been a vacant lot, help lift the local economy, require no demolition and perhaps provide a home for some of the displaced merchants.

Rosenbaum said his March 16 testimony in favor of the urban renewal ordinance, which is aimed at encouraging developers to build hundreds of apartments and dozens of shops in an 18-block area on the struggling west side of downtown, had nothing to do with his October 1998 application to the city to build a shopping complex in the area.

Although he identified himself as president of the merchants association in his testimony, Rosenbaum said he was careful to make it clear that his advocacy of the project was his opinion and not the association's position.

"I cannot see a conflict," said Rosenbaum, who sold the shop he has run for 30 years, Hosiery World at 211 W. Saratoga, last month. "I have followed every possible rule and regulation."

Rosenbaum said his proposed two-story building facing Eutaw Street could provide a home for some of the displaced merchants as well as national chains.

"There is nobody I would preclude renting to," said Rosenbaum, 58. "But this is not an exercise for my own health. I'm in it for the money. I'm going to take it easy and go fishing and build this building."

He added that although he never polled his 400-member association on the condemnation ordinance, he believes its membership was split over the proposal. The group remained neutral on the project, he said.

"In the long run, this is better for everyone, because it will create more business and foot traffic for everyone and will raise property values," said Rosenbaum, who has served as the association's president for 10 years and said he may step down soon. "For every one business that is displaced by this, there are 10 who are going to benefit from it."

Although Rosenbaum says the membership was split, City Council records of the Urban and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee hearing in March show that 57 people signed up to testify against the bill, including dozens of merchants who feared demolition. Rosenbaum was one of two merchants among the 10 people who testified in favor of the condemnation bill.

Others who spoke in favor of the ordinance included representatives of the nearby University of Maryland Medical System, a spokesman for Peter Angelos and three developers, including the Weinberg Foundation, which is proposing a large development in the area.

Scott Mun, owner of the Wig House at 114 W. Lexington St., said Rosenbaum would not be likely to fight for his members against the Baltimore Development Corp. if he was simultaneously trying to win the agency's approval.

"When he was supposed to be representing us, he was representing himself," Mun said.

The Market Center Association, based in Rosenbaum's store, has an annual budget of $110,000 a year, with the money coming out of the taxes of its 400 members on the west side of downtown. The group uses the money to raise advertising banners, create holiday decorations and put out flower pots, among other projects, Rosenbaum said.

The organization's bylaws say its purpose is "to promote the common business interests of its members engaged in the retail, service, rental and professional businesses located in the Market Center Retail Business District."

Maxine Sisserman, vice president of the Market Center Association and administrator of the Baltimore Studio of Hair Design at 18 N. Howard St., said Rosenbaum has done a good job over the last decade of helping merchants with a variety of problems.

Joel Winegarden, a member of the association board and director of real estate for the Weinberg Foundation, said it's "nonsense" to suggest that Rosenbaum faced a conflict.

"His project is being built on empty land," said Winegarden, whose foundation is building apartments and stores nearby. "Nobody will get displaced by his project, and it will create 10,000 square feet of additional retail space. It seems like a win-win all the way."

Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer of the Baltimore Development Corp., said this week that the city will soon give Rosenbaum a letter granting him a 120-day exclusive negotiating privilege on the city-owned lot at the southeast corner of Eutaw and Saratoga streets.

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