City may condemn Belvedere Square

O'Malley seeks bill allowing purchase, revival of retail center

Decay threatens neighbors

July 27, 2000|By Tom Pelton and Jamie Stiehm | Tom Pelton and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Determined to jolt new life into a once-thriving North Baltimore hub whose decay is threatening the neighborhoods around it, Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration is drafting an ordinance that would allow the city to condemn and buy Belvedere Square.

O'Malley and many local residents say that the mostly vacant shopping center has been managed poorly by developer James Ward, who received a $1.7 million government loan to build the cluster of stylish shops and restaurants at York and Belvedere roads that opened in 1986.

City officials hope that another company will buy, renovate and attract new stores to what many regard as an important community gathering place near the landmark Senator Theater.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about Belvedere Square on Page 1A yesterday mentioned three remaining businesses. Other businesses also are open, including Techlab Photo Imaging, Framin' Place, Belvedere Cleaners, Tuesday Morning, Lynne Brick's Women's Health & Fitness Center, and United Optical.
The Sun regrets the error.

The fate of the 103,500- square-foot plaza - with its tent-like green roof ringed by white lights that are now largely broken - carries symbolic importance for local residents, who worry that the failure of a center associated with Baltimore's renaissance would be an ill omen for the city's future.

The plaza flourished until the mid-1990's, luring so many shoppers to its clothing stores and cafes that customers often found it hard to find a parking space. But the closings of a Chili's restaurant, Pier 1, Coffee Mill and other stores in recent months have left dozens of darkened windows. A Blockbuster video, Greg's Bagel and Egyptian Pizza shop remain.

An asset, not a threat

O'Malley said the growing number of vacancies in Belvedere Square is evidence of "abysmal management" of the shopping strip and is not a symptom of the area's economic health.

"All of the neighborhoods around Belvedere Square are thriving, vibrant neighborhoods. Our primary goal is to see that the redevelopment of Belvedere Square happens as soon as possible, so that it will once again be an asset to the neighborhood instead of a threat to it," O'Malley said.

City officials met last night with community residents, merchants and church members to discuss the boundaries of an urban renewal ordinance. Other public forums will take place through the summer, city officials said.

The city plans to work with a committee of neighborhood leaders to draft an urban-renewal ordinance that would allow the city to take control of the property, paying Ward an amount determined by a pair of city appraisals. The ordinance would be submitted to the City Council for approval in September.

City favors sale

The city would not condemn the property if Ward agrees to sell to another landlord - an alternative favored by officials.

In 1998, the city forgave the $1.7 million loan Ward used to build the complex to replace a struggling retail strip.

Ward, president of Towson-based Ward Development Co., said it is unfair to blame him for the failure of the shopping plaza. Ward said the center's troubles stem from the flight of stores to suburbs, rising costs for security, a sluggish city administration under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and neighborhood groups that have shot down his plans for bringing in large stores.

The neighborhood will accept only small, Georgetown-like upscale shops, Ward said, instead of the big anchor stores that he believes are needed to draw shoppers.

Ward `just as frustrated'

"I know O'Malley's frustrated, but I'm just as frustrated as he is," Ward said. "I'm caught between a rock and a hard place, and I'd be willing to do anything it takes to move this plaza forward. I'd be willing to sell Belvedere Square tomorrow if the city wants to buy it."

Alfred W. Barry III, a planner hired to help coordinate Ward's project, said Ward has been trying hard to get the city and neighborhood to consider various solutions to the plaza's troubles. But Barry said Ward's ideas for resurrecting the mall have been continually rejected.

In March 1999, Ward proposed to buy about 40 houses to create a parcel large enough to attract an Old Navy store, Krispy Kreme donuts and Friendly's restaurant. But the Belvedere Improvement Association rejected the concept, Barry said.

Last fall, Ward proposed to demolish most of Belvedere Square and bring in a grocery store and drugstore. This spring, he floated the idea of leaving Belvedere Square in place but bringing in a grocery on the west side of York Road that could act as a magnet.

"The city keeps telling us what they don't want, but they won't tell us what they do want - except that they want Jim Ward out," Barry said.

A last resort

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the city's development agency, said the problem is that neighbors have lost so much faith in Ward that they have no confidence in anything he proposes.

The city is looking at condemnation as a last resort, Brodie said, and would take that approach only if both the community and the City Council approve.

The city prefers that Ward sell the plaza to another real estate company, such as Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust of Timonium (owners of York Road Plaza farther north on York Road) or Struever Brothers Eccles and Rouse, Brodie said.

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