Loss of Chili's a setback for Belvedere Square

Developer and city grope for new direction at failing urban center

Commercial real estate

June 30, 2000|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Chili's Grill & Bar has shut its Belvedere Square restaurant for good, striking another blow to a troubled North Baltimore shopping center.

The move was no surprise to the developer and owner, James J. Ward III, who said about half of the 30 storefronts in Belvedere Square have emptied in the past couple of years as consumer tastes have shifted and local and national tenants have suffered.

Ward has been at odds with the community over a new identity and tenants for the 14-year-old center, which once had a thriving collection of small and unique retailers. He now appears to be at an impasse with the city. Ward has made various proposals to the city and neighborhood, none of which would bring back what has been lost.

He's working with two developers to either sell the property or partner on a new development, Ward said. A proposed sale to a business group, UrbanAmerica, fell through this week.

City officials are beginning work on an urban renewal plan for the entire neighborhood that would incorporate involvement from all sides to set parameters on such elements as zoning and types of businesses. That would ensure that prospective tenants, developers and residents would know what they're facing, said Andy Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

"In the meantime, I was hoping they could hold out," said Ward of Chili's, which has seven years remaining on its lease. Terms to dissolve the lease have not been reached, he said.

A spokesman for Chili's said profits at the restaurant had been declining in the past several years, partially because neighboring tenants moved out, taking patrons with them. Another national retailer, Pier 1, closed late last year.

Chili's officially notified the bulk of the 70 employees Wednesday that the restaurant is closing, said Tim Smith, a spokesman for Chili's parent company, Brinker International in Dallas. He said other Baltimore-area Chili's have hired several of the workers and many more are expected to be picked up by the chain.

Workers have begun pulling items out of the building, which Chili's occupied for 14 years. A sign directs patrons to the company's other suburban locations.

"It was a business decision," Smith said. "It once was very profitable. It got to the point where it was losing money on an annual basis and we didn't see any prospect of turning it around. There are a lot of theories about why, including that other businesses left."

Ward used $12 million of his own money, private debt and a city loan to buy and develop the center 14 years ago. The city has since forgiven the loan. But Ward said he's still close to losing money.

At the heart of the redevelopment conflict is the neighborhood's desire for something unique and different from cookie-cutter suburban big-box centers, and the developer's notion of what the market can bear. One proposal Ward pitched involved leveling some neighboring homes to make way for a grocery and drugstore.

That proposal is dead. But Ward said the site needs to be rezoned to accommodate an anchor, such as a grocery or big-box retailer like Old Navy.

Ward, who controls about 1 million square feet of office and retail developments in Maryland and Florida, said he's learned what makes a center survive.

Small boutique and specialty shops alone won't work, he said.

"Belvedere Square was a 40-year-old center that I gave life to 14 years ago. Now it's time for a different kind of retail," he said.

Getting there seems to have everyone frustrated.

Third District Councilman Robert Curran called it a sad situation. "I am really disheartened. I tried to put my sense of urgency into redevelopment. People who would rather see nothing at all are getting their wish."

The city is looking for balance, said Frank. "Belvedere Square represented what was different about the city from the suburbs," he said.

"That's not to say that it should be that way again, but we don't think it should resemble Route 40. We want to preserve what's best about urban living and incorporate the realities of today's marketplace, which requires anchors."

Staff writer Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.

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