Development agency's creation unnerves west side merchants

Group's agenda makes small business owners concerned for stores' fate

February 11, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Plans to renovate Baltimore's west side gained a critical financial boost yesterday when some of the city's wealthiest business leaders -- including Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos -- unveiled a new nonprofit agency to guide the $350 million downtown project.

Members of West Side Renaissance Inc. also hired Maryland Office of Planning Director Ronald M. Kreitner to lead the new organization, intended to breath new life into the sagging shopping district over the next seven years.

Kreitner's arrival came with key backing from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who last year urged the city to create a development group to support the state's commitment of over $21 million to renovate the Hippodrome Theater as the west side catalyst.

"For the doubters, this will be a clear signal," said Bernard F. Siegel, trustee of the billion dollar Weinberg Foundation who sparked the resurgence plan. The group's formation is being received as more bad news by shop owners in the 18-square-block targeted area west of Charles Street, who worry that they will be eliminated by the redevelopment, and by historic preservationists.

The Baltimore Development Corp., the city's nonprofit economic development agency, has spent the past six weeks notifying many of the owners of 100 properties targeted for redevelopment that their businesses will soon be taken to make way for redevelopment.

Earlier this week, shop owners and preservationists successfully pushed for an amendment to a Glendening spending bill dedicating $21 million to the Hippodrome renewal. The amendment calls for closer scrutiny of the west-side project and its impact on merchants and buildings.

Yesterday's announcement again dampened hopes that small-business voices will be heard over the din of west-side demolition. Critics note that West Side Renaissance Inc. is composed of 30 business owners, some of whom will likely see their downtown property values rise.

"Money is power," Young Cho, 56, who operates a beauty salon in the renewal area at 112 W. Lexington St., said of the new agency. "I don't think this is right."

Angelos and other members of the new group, which will contribute $500,000 a year to keep the project moving, said their sole interest is rebuilding Baltimore.

"This is a group of people doing business in this city who live here and who have deep roots here," Angelos said. "We're committed to Baltimore, and we are going to participate with our energies and our finances, the way every citizen should participate in their community."

Some shop owners have criticized the new group as the city's latest "shadow government" agency. Because it is a nonprofit corporation, West Side Renaissance Inc. will not have to abide by state open-meetings laws. In addition, the group will work hand in hand with state and city governments for political support to move the project.

Lou Boulmetis, owner of Hippodrome Hatter at 15 N. Eutaw St., called the new redevelopment agency "an abuse of eminent domain powers."

In addition to Angelos, who owns Charles Center, and the Weinberg Foundation, which owns about 6 percent of the targeted buildings, the list of members includes other developers with downtown projects and area banks.

Mayor Martin O'Malley was one of three City Council members who opposed the west side bill authorizing the renewal. Yesterday, O'Malley welcomed the new organization but stood by his pledge to make sure small businesses and historic preservationists are heard.

"We made it very clear that the city is going to make the final call on development deals in which we are involved," O'Malley said. "This group is not created to usurp the process, it's something to support it."

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