Hatter seeks O'Malley's wisdom for west side

September 28, 2000|By Michael Olesker

HIS NAME IS Lou Boulmetis, and he stood there yesterday morning at City Hall and asked the mayor of Baltimore for wisdom out of the Old Testament. Have a heart, said Boulmetis. Have a little trust, replied the mayor. At such a crossroads of government and Scripture, the city prepares to demolish buildings.

For about 70 years, the Boulmetis family has owned Hippodrome Hatters, at 15 N. Eutaw St. For maybe 30 years, the thinkers at City Hall have looked at such property, on the west side of downtown, and asked, "Can't we do better than this?"

Such a question has not been aimed, specifically, at Hippodrome Hatters, for they have been conducting nice business - "Your full-service hatters," they call themselves - since 1930, and you cannot do this without an upstanding reputation. But the general condition of that part of downtown is dreary, undernourished, and causes many people who once delighted in trips to the city to keep their distance over the past three decades.

This is why we have the city's $350 million west-side redevelopment project in the works - and why we also have those such as the Boulmetis family saying, "Wait a minute. Don't our lives count for anything?"

Or, as Lou Boulmetis put it yesterday morning at City Hall, "I need your help." He was talking to the city's Board of Estimates, but he looked directly at Mayor Martin O'Malley. "You're Solomon," Boulmetis told him. "Are you gonna cut the baby in half?"

Such a gesture provoked truth in the Old Testament, but does not necessarily work in modern urban renewal. To save the neighborhood, the city feels it must first destroy at least part of it. Nobody's crazy about the neighborhood's current state - but does everyone have to get squashed, financially or otherwise, to improve it?

"We understand what they're saying," M.J. "Jay" Brodie, head of the Baltimore Development Corp., told the Board of Estimates. "It's their families. It's their livelihoods. It's emotional. It's traumatic. There are serious emotions at play."

In his years of service to the city, everybody knows Brodie as an honest and sensitive man. But, as he put it yesterday, "We can't keep deferring action, and be reliable to the Bank of America," which is helping to bankroll the west-side development and is getting itchy.

Yesterday, Marie E. Johnson made this clear. She is Bank of America's senior vice president for community development banking. She said Bank of America has spent about $500,000 getting ready for this project and sees nothing particular encouraging when it examines the pace of things.

"We're beyond the date we expected the city to have control of the block," she said. "Development costs are already higher than anticipated. We've stayed true to our commitments to work with the various merchants, but ..."

The rest of her thought went away. It went where such thoughts can best plant a little anxiety in the souls of the Board of Estimates. The city has so much of its future tied up in this west-side move - but those with a sense of history, and a feel for the underdog, also understand the implications beyond economics.

Everybody - the Board of Estimates, the Bank of America, the people in Jay Brodie's office - say all the right things about looking out for those who have hung in through the difficult years, who did not write off the city and join the suburban exodus.

For a lot of those years, the city frankly had no one else wanting to move into such properties. But those days have changed. For the moment, money is in the air, and architectural plans swirling around, and much enthusiasm that a new day has dawned.

"It's one of those things," O'Malley said, "where we're damned if we do, and damned if we don't."

He expressed sympathy for the Boulmetis family. The city has offered Boulmetis $127,000 for his business - not quite as much as he had expected. With additional city money, he said, he would like to relocate across the street, at the old Palmer House Restaurant site, and then move back to the old address when work is completed in a few years. It is not the end of the world for Hippodrome Hatters - but it is a major bite into their profitability, and a major headache.

"If we didn't care how the existing merchants are treated," O'Malley said, "we could have moved forward seven months ago. We would have cited federal law, `the common good,' and moved on. We're not doing that."

When he was a city councilman, O'Malley voted against the west-side project - because he worried about those doing business there now. "But we have to move forward," the mayor said. "I know it's scary, and we'd all like guarantees that you'll benefit from the improvements. ... But we will do the fair thing, and the right thing."

"I trust you," Lou Boulmetis said.

Then the Board of Estimates voted unanimously to take over the Hippodrome Hatters and four nearby properties - and to walk that thin line between sensitivity and profitability as downtown renewal gets a little closer to reality.

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