Key west-side developer balks at demands for preservation

Weinberg Foundation says state proposal could kill its project

March 11, 2000|By Tom Pelton and Gady A. Epstein | Tom Pelton and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's largest urban renewal project since the Inner Harbor threatened to fall apart yesterday as a key developer warned that demands to preserve buildings could kill its plans.

The $350 million redevelopment of the city's west side hinges on an infusion of more than $150 million from a development group led by the Weinberg Foundation, one of the largest property owners on the west side.

But the foundation is upset that some state lawmakers want to withhold funding for the renovation of the Hippodrome Theater -- a key part of the renewal project -- until developers agree with preservationists to minimize demolitions.

The Budget and Taxation Committee, led by Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, added proposed language to the state budget Thursday that would require developers to reach an agreement with a preservation agency before tearing down buildings.

"This could kill the project," said Donn Weinberg, corporate counsel for the Owings Mills-based foundation, which is proposing to build 350 apartments and 400,000 square feet of stores. "We don't want to be held hostage by the demand that there be an agreement with the Maryland Historical Trust."

If the Weinberg Foundation pulls out, it would jeopardize the other major development on the west side, a $54 million apartment and retail complex planned by Bank of America nearby, a bank official said.

The proposed demolitions have sparked a heated debate, with some arguing the economically depressed city desperately needs development and others saying bulldozers will scrape away the city's unique architecture and rout small merchants to make way for chain stores.

Opponents have said they felt powerless against the army of city leaders backing the project until Hoffman grabbed the developers' attention. She proposed preservation requirements that could hold up $5 million of the $21.5 million in state funding for the renovation of the Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street, which many regard as the key to the rebuilding of the west side.

Hoffman's proposed budget amendment -- the legislature's only leverage over west-side redevelopment -- would prevent the state from giving the $5 million unless the city and the trust reach an accord "on how to minimize the demolition" in a newly created west side historic district.

Officials for the foundation warned their project won't work if the state refuses to let them demolish up to 42 of 50 buildings in a six-block area bounded by Howard, Fayette, Clay and Liberty streets.

But preservationists have said they want to save at least 30 of the 50 buildings in the area. The foundation has said it might save only the eight most significant buildings there.

The foundation has agreed to preserve and renovate the well-known Stewart's department store at Howard and Lexington streets, the former Kresge store at 119 Lexington St. and two buildings with rare iron facades at 117-119 Howard St., among others.

At risk are 42 stores -- some bland structures built as late as the 1960s -- that hold discount stores, jewelers, beauty supply outlets and electronics shops.

Maria Johnson, vice president of the Banc of America Community Development Corp., which is proposing to build a 365-apartment complex at Eutaw and Baltimore streets, said her project is also at risk.

"I am concerned about the language being added to the [appropriations] bill, because it could cause delays and have a negative effect on the west side renaissance project, which everyone agrees would greatly help the whole city," Johnson said.

The bank's proposed Centerpoint project, which would also include 80,000 square feet of stores, would preserve two-thirds of the approximately 20 buildings in the block bounded by Eutaw, Baltimore, Howard and Fayette streets. Among those saved would be the 1905 Paramount Hotel building on Howard and 1911 Town Theater on Fayette.

Hoffman said she's not trying to halt the west side project or drive away the developers. She said she's only trying to make sure all the parties are negotiating in good faith to preserve as many buildings as practical and help the merchants who will be displaced.

She said her effort wouldn't be necessary if the city hadn't launched the west side project with a wrong-headed approach that allowed wholesale bulldozing. She said she wants developers and preservationists to compromise.

"We're not saying they [foundation officials] have to save everything, but they ought to look at the value added to their own project by doing some preservation," Hoffman said.

"If the Weinbergs are saying, `We don't even want to talk,' who's being unreasonable?"

Joel Winegarden, director of real estate for the foundation, said they are willing to talk. But he said preservationists have demanded so many buildings be saved that investors would pull out of his project, because it is risky and promises a marginal profit.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said that he has been a supporter of the preservationists but worries that they might be demanding too much.

"If this project were to be hamstrung by all-or-nothing demands of the preservationists, I could direct the [redevelopment] resources of the city to other areas," O'Malley said.

Tyler Gearhart, director of Preservation Maryland, which proposed the language adopted by Hoffman, said the revitalization effort could succeed without the Weinberg Foundation's millions.

"We have a different vision of the area, which is of an historic, mixed-use district of the kind that has proven successful in Denver, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities," Gearhart said.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which would also have to approve any preservation requirements, said, "These issues can be resolved in a way both the preservationists and the Weinberg Foundation are satisfied with."

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