Renewed hope in Belvedere Square revival

April 11, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BECAUSE HE IS such a shy, retiring fellow, it took Greg Novik all of about eight seconds this week to cast off his guise as humble maker of bagels and thrust himself into the great political question of our time concerning one Martin O'Malley.

"You said so many nice things about me," announced Novik, proprietor of Greg's Bagels, as he stood facing the mayor of Baltimore, a small squadron of reporters, assorted TV cameras and more than a hundred spectators, "that I'm going to have to vote for you no matter which way you run."

So there. Such was the good cheer Tuesday morning at Belvedere Square that the thought of O'Malley taking unscheduled leave of City Hall for a State House run could cause laughter instead of dread. The good cheer came from the announcement that the shopping center, at Belvedere and York roads near the Senator movie theater, is about to be summoned back from the grave.

This is because some of the area's most visionary developers -- Bill Struever of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Richard Alter of the Manekin Corp. and Tony Hawkins of Hawkins Development Group -- have gotten behind the effort, and so have City Hall and the state, bringing a total of $16 million to the effort.

And, not to be minimized, it clings to life because of a guy such as Greg Novik. He held his ground. Across the dreary years, he joked about running a not-for-profit business as first one merchant pulled out, and then more and more. Only his regular customers kept coming, because all other traffic through the area imagined the whole strip had been abandoned.

This is why, on Tuesday, O'Malley called Novik "the virtual mayor of Belvedere Square." It was a nice, flattering line but, as the mayor knows, Novik could almost be mayor of the place by default.

He and his wife, Kathy, are among a mere handful of merchants who have hung in through the ghost years of the once bustling shopping strip, refusing to go away, believing in the commercial viability of the location and believing, most of all, in the life of all those surrounding neighborhoods and people's desire to gather in agreeable places.

"It's a symbol for the whole city," said developer Tony Hawkins of redevelopment plans. "A great moment of triumph."

"This is a big, big deal," added Richard Alter. "It stabilizes a neighborhood. It improves the quality of residential life in the York Road corridor. It becomes an old-time neighborhood mecca again."

"A caldron," Bill Struever called it. "A little place like Greg's Bagels, you come and get to know everybody. These merchants are real heroes. They've held things together."

And then Struever said something unanticipated. We are talking, after all, about a shopping area, a gathering place for the buying and selling of goods. But Struever, the visionary developer, called it spiritual.

"Absolutely," he said. "Spiritual, because nothing's more important than to come and talk to neighbors, and feel like you're a part of the bigger world." He gestured toward Novik and Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator. "They've been heroes," he said. "They've held the area together, and that's a spiritual thing."

Modern convenience makes it too easy to be slugs. Cable television takes us around the world, and the Internet does the same. It's too easy to isolate ourselves, to stay in our rooms -- and then wonder why we feel cut off from the world immediately around us.

When Belvedere Square was hot, it drew visitors from Govans and Homeland and Cedarcroft and points beyond. The mayor of Baltimore courted young Katie Curran there. A grocery mart bustled and gave off energy for blocks around. A sense of something hopeful spread along the York Road corridor.

The years of difficulty with the original developer, James J. Ward III, seem to be ending now. An upscale, 13,000-square-foot open-air market is likely to open in the fall. Loyola College is opening an office there soon. There are expectations of full occupancy, including retailers and restaurants, by next spring.

"I used to bring my wife here in our dating days," Mayor O'Malley said. "It was such a great place, with so much vitality. And then it became this jarring symbol of a city in decline -- even though it was surrounded by all these great neighborhoods. You have to have a solid center. And I think we're gonna bring back this center."

Such moments make the job of mayor of Baltimore feel like so much fun that he almost doesn't think about Annapolis.

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