Renewal may force 2 moves for store

City says it steered owner to different site

October 26, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

In a matter of days People's Liquors will reluctantly abandon the two-story brick building in downtown Baltimore where it has peddled booze since Prohibition ended in 1933. It is the latest business being forced out by the planned $60 million Centerpoint retail and residential project.

The good news for store owner George Herrmann: The city will pay thousands of dollars - officials won't say how much - to move him and his floor-to-ceiling shelves of discount liquor, as it has done for other merchants displaced by the west-side renewal effort.

The bad news is that the store's new rental home two blocks away at 409 W. Baltimore St. is being considered for a city takeover so that block can be revamped, too.

The way Herrmann sees it, the city will have to pay his moving costs a second time if it evicts him again. Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development arm, says it tried to steer him to another location in case the takeover occurs, but Herrmann says the agency did not identify a suitable alternative, giving him no choice but to sign a lease on Baltimore Street.

"It's ludicrous," said city Real Estate Officer Joseph A. Wesolowski, who started last month and reports to Comptroller Joan M. Pratt. "Here's another extra cost to the city - to move someone twice."

The People's Liquors situation follows city-financed buyouts aimed at clearing the way for redevelopment and, in theory, renewed vitality on the west side.

For Bank of America's Centerpoint, the city spent $12.1 million buying property on the block bounded by Fayette, Baltimore, Howard and Eutaw streets - and $1.7 million to move businesses.

The bank has agreed to pay the city $4.9 million for the land, though the city might not see the money for at least a decade. The project calls for 383 market-rate apartments, 420 parking spaces and 40,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has said affected merchants should be treated generously, and the city has kept its word. In one case, businessman Meir A. Duke received $165,744 to move his store, Bare Feet Shoes, three doors away on North Howard Street.

BDC officials say future acquisitions might be different.

"I don't know how the acquisition for the properties is going to be handled just yet," said Sharon Grinnell, BDC's chief operating officer and west-side coordinator. "I don't want to assume the way we've done business in the past is the way we're going to do business in the future."

She added: "You try to find ways to be more effective, efficient."

Depending on a number of factors, including available funding, the city could stay active on the condemnation front. The city has authority to take a slew of properties in a nearby area east of Howard Street, and O'Malley said recently that he wanted to see more progress there.

Now, the city is asking the City Council for condemnation power on 25 more properties, including much of the 400 block of W. Baltimore St., between Eutaw and Paca streets. The University of Maryland Medical System may want to put doctors' offices on the south side of the block.

Grinnell said it is difficult to predict when the city would act on such authority: "I can't say it's going to happen in three, six, 12 or 18 months."

That uncertainty unnerves merchants on the half-empty block, including some who have had to move before. Kyong Choe, who operates New Civic Carry-Out in rented space at 420 W. Baltimore St., said the University of Maryland years ago made her leave a previous site farther west.

"I don't want to be in another place and start again," she said recently while cooking a customer's sausage-and-egg sandwich. "Even if they pay for everything, I have to start over."

At least one other business - ACE Cash Express check-cashing agency - is in the same situation as People's Liquors. It has hung an "opening soon" sign at 407 W. Baltimore St., another property sought by the city for condemnation.

The business was across the street but had to move because of the $56 million Hippodrome Theater renovation. The Maryland Stadium Authority, overseeing the theater work, paid ACE more than $6,000 for its move, partly because it could not move bulletproof glass.

And Ecuador Hat Co., which used to be next to People's Liquors at Fayette and Howard streets, bought 413 W. Baltimore St. to keep selling hats. But there is no point in reopening now, said Dale Lawson, who took over the business after his uncle, John Macas, died last year.

People's Liquors opened during the Depression. Its founder, Benny Rubin, was a brusque businessman who made a fortune from the store, prospering in the decades when the area was a center of commerce.

Today the store proclaims itself a center of discount liquors. High on one shelf sits a $73 bottle of Moet & Chandon Champagne, but the more popular items are in tubs on the counter: mini-bottles of Black Watch vodka for $1.80 and Heaven Hill whiskey for $1.99.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.