Foundation might see its west-side role shrink

Impatient city weighs condemning sites owned by Weinberg

October 17, 2001|By Scott Calvert | By Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, an early key player in the attempted rejuvenation of Baltimore's west side, apparently is being nudged aside by impatient city officials who say they might move to condemn some of the properties owned by the nonprofit.

Under an effort being considered by city officials, the Owings Mills-based foundation would play a much-diminished role in redeveloping the west side, where it owns numerous properties.

One six-block swath largely owned by the foundation is considered critical because it is between the mostly stable Charles Street corridor and new west-side projects on North Howard Street.

Though specifics of the redevelopment plans for that area are scant, the city's impatience with Weinberg is evident.

"They're very good people, and they do a lot of great philanthropic work, but development is not for everyone," Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday. "We want to see progress quickly."

O'Malley said the Weinberg foundation, which has more than $2 billion in assets, is "certainly welcome" to develop the area. But he added, "We don't want to wait 20 or 30 years to see it happen."

The mayor said the area would be "conducive" to street-level retail, a parking garage and housing or offices.

In a "Dear property owner" form letter that misspelled the foundation president's name, the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. told Weinberg it has commissioned new appraisals of 16 parcels the foundation owns. Most are on West Lexington and North Howard streets.

"It is always our practice to acquire properties at the fair market value and your assistance would be greatly appreciated in accomplishing this goal," said the Aug. 14 letter from Sharon R. Grinnell, BDC's chief operating officer.

Grinnell said in an interview that using the city's condemnation power to buy out the foundation and area merchants is "something being looked at."

`Different direction' Bernard Siegel, president of the foundation, said, "Certainly, that was the impression we got. They wanted to go in a different direction and were looking to acquire the properties."

Siegel said the message is not necessarily unwelcome because the foundation has no immediate plans to develop most of the properties. Still, he said, the letter arrived without warning from BDC officials, a sign of how much has changed since the foundation spent $200,000 on a 1998 study to help spur the city's west-side revival effort.

"I can't tell you I'm terribly happy about the manner in which it was done," Siegel said.

After the study, the city granted Weinberg exclusive negotiating rights to craft a plan for an area straddling the Lexington Street pedestrian mall. The boundaries were Clay Street to the north, Fayette Street to the south, Liberty Street to the east and Howard Street to the west. (Siegel says the negotiating rights ended months ago; Grinnell says they still exist.)

Originally, the city was to use its condemnation authority to take properties not owned by Weinberg and convey them to the foundation for its Howard Street USA development, Siegel said. O'Malley's decision in January to preserve more than 260 buildings derailed the proposed $150 million retail and residential project because it would have meant demolishing 42 buildings.

The foundation has pleased city officials by pushing ahead with converting to offices the former Stewart's department store at Howard and Lexington streets. Siegel said it will cost about $20 million and should be ready by April. That property is not among those scheduled for new appraisals.

Activity elsewhere But little has happened in the rest of the Weinberg-controlled area as progress has been made elsewhere. Developer David H. Hillman turned the former Hecht's department store across from Stewart's into the Atrium apartments, and Bank of America is set to begin its $60 million Centerpoint retail and residential development nearby.

"There is a lot of other activity that has occurred and that is going on," Grinnell said. "We feel that there is the need to continue the momentum."

The properties Weinberg had been expected to redevelop occupy "vital ground in terms of making the connections" between Charles and Howard streets, said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., a business group.

The Weinberg Foundation wants to focus on Stewart's and has put the other properties on the back burner, Siegel said, adding, "We are not prepared to develop it immediately." It would make sense to see how Hillman's Atrium and Centerpoint fare before moving ahead, he said.

Though the city could condemn its properties, the Weinberg Foundation's charter says it cannot sell except "under compelling circumstances."

That stipulation reflects the view of Harry Weinberg, who amassed a $900 million fortune before his death in 1990 at age 82. He made much of his money by buying and holding real estate, including valuable tracts in Hawaii.

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