Old Town Mall sites to be auctioned

Merchants complain of city's failure to stem area's economic decline

September 10, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The Internal Revenue Service plans to auction four adjacent properties today at East Baltimore's Old Town Mall, seized from the estate of a slain man who had been indicted on charges of drug dealing.

The pending sale prompted mall merchants to again call upon the city to step in and save the struggling block of shops on North Gay Street. City officials say they have worked to attract business to the mall, but merchants repeated their frustration over its continued decline.

When advised of the pending sale, merchants predicted that it will take much more than a new tenant on the corner to revive the mall.

"That one spot is not going to make a big difference in this mall," said Stephen Pinnick, owner of Model Men's Shop. "If it was a full-fledged supermarket, or a large store, Kmart, Target or any one of them, that might make a difference, but this one won't make a difference, believe me."

The properties being auctioned are a few doors from Pinnick's shop. IRS officials seized them from the estate of Rodney Bryan in April 2000 after officials determined the buildings at 425, 427, 429 and 431 Old Town Mall (formerly North Gay Street) were bought with drug money. (A sign outside the seized properties indicates that they were used to sell pagers and accessories.)

Bryan, 35, was found fatally shot in December 1999 in a Cockeysville apartment, where he had been living under an alias while authorities sought him as a fugitive on drug charges. Bryan had been indicted in federal court in June 1999 for conspiracy to distribute heroin and related charges.

Pinnick, who has run his clothing business at Old Town Mall since 1963, said that for the past nine years the city has made empty promises about revitalizing the once-thriving group of stores.

"We have seen several plans, starting dates which have never happened," Pinnick, 57, said last week. "Each administration appoints someone to tell us what they think we would like to hear, but nothing is happening. No one, including the mayor, can give us any information. Another promise. ... That's all we get."

Alfred Gladden, 46, who manages Flair Barber Shop in the mall, holds elected officials accountable for the mall's deterioration.

"The politicians cannot get their game together to get this thing straight," Gladden said. "We keep hearing in the media what they're going to do. It's an eyesore. This used to be the mecca for East Baltimore shoppers. To allow this to happen, I can't believe it."

Kevin J. Malachi, director of commercial revitalization in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said he understands merchants' frustrations.

"They're disillusioned, because this has been a long and arduous process for the past eight years," Malachi said. "They've had developers win the contract and not be able to perform or meet the objectives of the contract. They are somewhat frustrated."

But Malachi said Mayor Martin O'Malley is committed to improving Old Town Mall. Last year, city leaders announced a $4.8 million plan for a supermarket, bank and fast-food restaurant at the mall, but those plans fell through.

Malachi said officials had torn down "a block of sites" in preparation for that developer. "They've seen more activity happen in a year under this administration than they have in eight years."

He said 5 acres were recently let out for bids, and requests for proposals were due Friday.

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