Restaurant plan a sign of new life amid decay

Renovation approved by representatives of Pennsylvania Ave. area

September 17, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Michael Johnson used to shine shoes behind the Royal Theater during the heyday of Pennsylvania Avenue. Now the city redevelopment specialist is helping to bring new businesses to the old neighborhood.

Last week, Johnson and other city officials unveiled plans for a restaurant that will replace a derelict strip of shuttered storefronts in the 600 block of West Laurens St. Renovation should be completed in January.

"When you can come home and you can do a project and you can drive by and say, `I was responsible for that' - it means a whole lot to me," said Johnson, who helped the restaurant's developer and the community work together on the project.

The restaurant, to be called Legends, will replace Covington's seafood carry-out. Once a fixture in the neighborhood, Covington's closed several years ago.

Obi Kamran, president of Pamir Corp., the owner and developer of Legends, said he originally wanted to put a carry-out fried chicken business on the site. City officials and community representatives rejected that idea, saying the last thing Pennsylvania Avenue needed was another chicken shack.

Rather than walk away from the project, Kamran said, he decided to work with the city and local representatives.

"I'm not shy of challenges," said Kamran, who has owned restaurants in Harlem and Brooklyn. "I did not see that the obstacles were insurmountable. Most of the ideas made good business sense, too."

After three months of negotiating, all parties agreed on plans for a 6,000-square-foot restaurant. It will seat about 50 people and will be decorated with portraits of musicians and other prominent figures from the history of Pennsylvania Avenue, which was the heart of black Baltimore from the 1940s to the 1960s. Plans also call for a small art gallery named after singer Billie Holiday.

The renovation is expected to cost about $250,000, about one-third more than Kamran's initial proposal.

Some of the additional expense will go to build the dining room, expand the kitchen and make the bathrooms accessible to disabled customers.

Members of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative gave the project their blessing during a recent community meeting. Johnson said it was essential to give local merchants and residents a voice in the project.

"I didn't want them to have the impression that somebody was just going to come into the neighborhood and do whatever they wanted," he said.

The community has rarely had a say in deciding what businesses open in the area, Johnson said.

"We have some horrible businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue," he said.

Johnson said he hopes that agreements made with Kamran will persuade other area merchants to improve their properties and change the way they do business.

Kamran has said he will hire local residents and develop a management training program for the employees.

Winning these concessions was not an easy task, Johnson said.

"It was very difficult," he said.

Kamran said he was surprised at the steps he had to take to win approval. But he said he also learned much about the history of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"We think it will be a positive thing for the community," he said. "Hopefully, from now on it will be smooth sailing."

Kevin J. Malachi, who oversees commercial revitalization in the city Department of Housing and Community Development, said the project "is just part of our continued effort to make things happen." Department efforts paid off this summer when a Foot Locker shoe store opened next to the Avenue Market.

As envisioned, Legends will change the look and feel of the rundown block across West Laurens Street from the Avenue Market.

On a recent day, the area around the gated storefronts resembled a neighborhood dump. Bags of trash, tires, a wrecked shopping cart and other junk was piled around the front and sides of the building. Shoes, a sofa, empty malt liquor bottles and more trash littered a small alley behind the row of storefronts.

George Gilliam, who manages the area's Main Streets program, said he is constantly calling city sanitation crews to clean up the streets and alleys around Pennsylvania Avenue. Gilliam also said the restaurant is one more sign that the years of decline on Pennsylvania Avenue might be coming to an end.

"We're dealing with 30 years of neglect here," said Gilliam. "One restaurant will not change 30 years of neglect, but it's a good step forward."

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