Belvedere Square proposal presented

Development team wants to return to open-market style

October 11, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Prospective developers of Belvedere Square laid out a vision for the future yesterday that looks something like the past.

The development team of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, Manekin Corp. and the Hawkins Group pitched a plan to nearby residents that lacks a big-box retailer or a large grocery store, and seeks instead to restore the open-market style that made the 105,000-square-foot retail complex a thriving neighborhood center when it opened in 1986.

The $24 million proposal calls for a market cafe setup, with vendor doors opening up to a sidewalk. The plan is for the market to be run by the owner of Nick's Seafood at Cross Street Market, Tom Chagouris. Sidewalk strollers would be able to browse among displays of fresh fish, sushi, produce, poultry, cheese, baked goods, coffee and flowers.

The resemblance to the square in its heyday is "no accident at all," C. William Struever, a development partner, said yesterday. "The original was terrific neighborhood retail, fun and lively."

A three-story open parking structure would be built to provide more free parking, and a few family-style restaurants would be sought to replace the closed Chili's restaurant.

The developers, who purchased an option to buy the troubled square late last year from longtime owner James J. Ward III, said they will seek at least $6 million from the state's "One Maryland" program - money that would be applied toward landscape and infrastructure, and consist of about one-quarter of the total cost.

The 60 to 70 people who attended the meeting greeted the plan with cautious enthusiasm.

Tom Kiefaber, owner of the nearby Senator Theatre, said, "At first blush, this concept could restore economic vitality to [the crossroads of] York and Belvedere."

But the Belvedere Improvement Association, which long sought ways to revive the complex, said it would reserve comment on the proposal.

If the plan wins a nod from the city and state, then the development team said it would exercise its option to buy, which expires in May.

The square flourished after it first opened 15 years ago, offering a high-end mix of mostly locally owned shops, including Faidley's Seafood, Utz Fresh Potato Chips and Frank Velleggia's Casa di Pasta.

But Ward struggled to fill the stores and make payments on the $12 million complex. Within five years, businesses began to leave as retailers complained of high rent, unreasonable fees and inadequate promotion.

Ward offered proposals to revive the square, from razing 40 adjacent houses to make room for a suburban-size mall to tearing down more than half the strip and building a drugstore and a supermarket. Residents balked at most proposals.

In November, with Mayor Martin O'Malley's encouragement, Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse announced plans to buy the complex with two business partners.

Developers called on city officials and community members for help to revitalize the struggling shopping complex. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to attract a supermarket tenant, but the concept floated yesterday is considered, in the words of one developer, "an exciting plan B."

The city has put on hold a lawsuit against Ward, pending the prospective sale. The city solicitor filed the lawsuit last year, contending that a 62-foot cellular communications tower atop the old Hochschild Kohn store building in Belvedere Square was constructed illegally.

Neighbors also have challenged the presence of the tower, which Ward built five years ago, as an eyesore.

Concerns about the tower are not expected to undermine the sale of the square. The development team said it would count on revenue from the cellular tower to help finance the project.

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