Mayor O'Malley duels with Weinberg charity

Howard Street: Tired of slow progress, city wants to condemn underused foundation properties.

October 21, 2001

ALIVE OR DEAD, Harry Weinberg has been a force to contend with.

When William Donald Schaefer was mayor in the 1970s and 1980s, he stood in awe of the crafty and cranky speculator who accumulated land and buildings in the old Howard Street department store district and then kept redevelopment at bay by sitting on the holdings.

After the self-made financier died in 1990, leaving his fortune to the poor, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke did his best to accommodate the $1 billion Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. When it asked to redevelop some of the underused properties around the old Stewart's department store building, at Howard and Lexington streets, City Hall obligingly gave a go-ahead.

That relationship gradually soured after Martin O'Malley became mayor in December, 1999. Recently, he became so frustrated with the slow pace of redevelopment on the west side of downtown that he moved to condemn the foundation's key properties on a "super-block" bordered by Park Avenue and Fayette, Howard and Lexington streets.

"Honolulu" Harry -- so nicknamed because of his vast fortune in Hawaii -- never would have taken this lying down. Amazingly, his foundation shows no sign of wanting to challenge the mayor's quick-take.

"I only hope they'll do a better job than they have done so far," foundation president Bernard Siegel says of the mayor's decision.

The foundation is partially at fault for this unexpected turn of events; it is as quirky in its operations as Harry Weinberg ever was. But Mayor O'Malley shares the blame. He sent mixed messages even as he changed his whole view about west-side development.

Over the past three decades, the Howard Street area -- whether it has been called Market Center or west-side or some by-now forgotten other name -- has been the graveyard of redevelopment attempts. The most spectacular flop was a 1981 promise by Los Angeles developer David H. Murdock to spend $250 million for an urban mall project. Five years later, with little results, he pulled out.

Common to all of those designs was a belief that the Howard Street area could be rejuvenated only through large-scale demolition.

That was the Weinberg Foundation's proposal in 1998, when the Schmoke administration selected it to redevelop the "super-block." Most everything was to be razed, except for the landmark Stewart's building, which the foundation is currently renovating.

Initially, Mayor O'Malley, too, appeared to favor wholesale razing.

In his first major economic development decision, the mayor chose Bank of America to build the $60.8 million Centerpoint residential and retail complex at Eutaw and Baltimore Street, opposite a vacant vaudeville house that is being turned into a $63 million Hippodrome Performing Arts Center. A rival proposal, by Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, advocated renovation of existing facades; the bank's submission was based on substantial wrecking.

In favoring Bank of America's demolition thrust, Mayor O'Malley may have been swayed by a hope that the giant financial institution would become a major player in redeveloping other devastated Baltimore areas. The Weinberg Foundation, though, saw the mayor's decision as a reaffirmation of its view that the Howard Street area's old buildings were expendable.

Then the mayor unexpectedly changed the course. Bowing to pressure first from merchants and then from historic preservationists, he became an uncompromising champion for retaining the west-side area's patchwork of old mercantile buildings.

When this stand was codified into law last January, it wiped out the basis for the Weinberg Foundation's redevelopment proposals. Another unbridgeable philosophical difference also surfaced: The mayor wanted more and more apartments to bring new residents to the west-side area; the Weinberg Foundation's focus was retail development.

The Weinberg charity is one of the nation's 25 wealthiest foundations. Each year, it gives millions to city-based charities. The mayor wasn't about to cut any slack, though. By summer, he had had enough. He ordered the city to start preparations for the condemnation of key Weinberg properties.

The foundation's decision not to fight quick-take may be due to a realization that it made a mistake in getting involved in the politics of redevelopment. Most other big charities shy away from such contentious issues where they can easily become punching bags.

The O'Malley administration expects to get the initial appraisals for the Weinberg properties next month. There is likely to be dickering about prices, but once the city acquires the parcels, they will be advertised for development.

Meanwhile, redevelopment of the west-side, a goal of city administrations for the past three decades, inches on. The old Hecht Co. flagship building was recently converted into apartments; work on the Stewart's building continues and several other projects are under way. "It's time to redevelop around Stewart's and Hecht's and capitalize on the momentum," says Deputy Mayor Laurie Schwartz.

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