Parking demands fuel project debate

West-side plans called a threat to city's identity

April 01, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

National chain stores travel in packs and won't join the planned rebuilding of the west side of downtown Baltimore unless the city demolishes up to 42 buildings to create large parking garages with about 1,000 spaces, developers said yesterday.

The city needs to condemn most buildings in a six-block area around Lexington Street because chain stores, such as the Gap and Old Navy, won't come unless they will be surrounded and supported by other national chains, according to leaders of the Weinberg Foundation.

The Owings Mills-based foundation, which is leading the city's largest redevelopment effort since the Inner Harbor, released yesterday sketches and a detailed description of their proposed 400,000-square-foot retail complex called Howard Street USA.

The $150 million project has sparked an intense debate between preservationists and business leaders because it would require the demolition of century-old buildings and the eviction of dozens of merchants.

"For a city to succeed, it needs people living, working and shopping in it," said Joel Winegarden, director of real estate for the foundation. "In Baltimore today, there is just no place for city people to do their major shopping. So they go out to the county to shop instead of staying in the city."

"We want to add whatever will convince people to stay and live downtown," Winegarden said.

Foundation officials said last month that preservation demands by state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and other state lawmakers could derail their project, but they sounded optimistic yesterday that the legislators will soften their stance.

Hoffman said yesterday that she was encouraged by the progress of talks between developers and preservationists.

The foundation's sketches show a three-story, glass-and-steel shopping complex replacing the 90-year-old, neo-Gothic former Brager-Gutman department store building at the southwest corner of Park and Lexington streets.

Drawings for the project show seven renovated landmark buildings -- including the former Stewart's and Kresge's stores on Lexington Street -- surrounded by contemporary-looking buildings with huge windows and billboard-size advertisements for national chain stores.

Included in the sketches are a multiscreen movie complex, a chain coffee store, computer shops, a bookstore, an athletic goods retailer, a compact disc store, a fashion chain, a small park, 350 apartments, two parking garages and 250,000 square feet of office space.

Although no national retail chains have signed leases to join the project, the foundation hopes that its partner, New York-based Grid Properties, will attract similar tenants to those the company signed for its 300,000-square-foot New York shopping complex, Harlem USA, said Winegarden.

Harlem USA, which is under construction and due to open June 8, has signed Old Navy, Modell's sporting goods, an HMV music store, a Disney merchandise outlet, a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank, restaurants and an athletic club, Winegarden said.

New York's Harlem is similar to the west side of Baltimore in that it is a high-density, urban neighborhood that for years has been ignored by large national stores, Winegarden said.

Adding large anchor stores to the Lexington Street neighborhood would generate more business for small merchants in the area, many of whom could return after construction is complete, Winegarden said.

The catch is the need for parking. To attract the large stores, developers need to tear down dozens of buildings to make way for parking garages, Winegarden said. The foundation would renovate the seven most valuable buildings, including the Barenburg Optical building at 200 W. Fayette St., and save more if possible.

Preservationists say they want the revitalization to succeed. But they say it would be more likely to succeed if the city protects its distinctive and charming architecture by preserving 21 more of the 50 buildings in the area.

"What's unique about downtown is its historic buildings and locally owned small businesses," said Tyler Gearhart, director of Preservation Maryland. "That is what has proven most successful both here and all over the country. But Baltimore seems to be moving in the other direction."

Shoppers on Lexington Street yesterday had mixed reactions to sketches of the proposed shopping complex.

"I like it. It's flashy and really catches the eye," said Matt Bargasse, 27, an accountant from Baltimore. "I like the glass and the big, colorful advertising. It looks like something you could find in New York."

Ricky Bridgemohan, a 36-year-old assistant store manager from Pikesville, said it would be a mistake for the city to build something that looks like a suburban shopping mall.

Howard Street USA would fill a six-block area bounded by Howard, Fayette, Liberty and Clay streets. The Weinberg Foundation owns 18 of the 50 buildings in the area, where rents have dropped from about $40 a square foot in 1987 to about $11 a square foot last year.

The foundation wants to the city to use its power of condemnation to gain control of the other 32 buildings.

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