FOR NEARLY four years, Young Ja Cho's business life has been under an urban sword of Damocles.
That's how long Cho's Wig House Beauty Salon, in the 100 block of W. Lexington St., has been on the list of properties that could be condemned as part of the west-side redevelopment plan.
During that time, several merchants have had their businesses acquired to make way for new residential and commercial projects. But Cho and her fellow merchants along the so-called Superblock - considered a pivotal link between the downtown business district and the west side - have neither received notices that their properties will be taken nor been told that they'll be allowed to stay.
"I'm just waiting and waiting and waiting," Cho said.
Since the fall, John C. Murphy, the attorney for several current and former west-side merchants, has been pushing for the city to allow Cho and others to remain, saying that in return they would be willing to spruce up their properties.
Now, Murphy, a noted preservation lawyer, says he is "encouraged" that the city might agree with his proposition. He figures his plan could save the city $4 million in acquisition and relocation costs.
Murphy bases his optimism in part on a letter he received this month from an official of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. It said his proposal is "still being favorably considered."
He also bases it on the fact that a demonstration project set up shop last month in BDC's offices. The initiative is run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help small businesses on the west side and in the city's Main Streets neighborhood shopping districts use historic tax credits.
"When the thing first started, there was a general assumption that all the merchants would be removed from the area," Murphy said of the west-side plan. "I think there's been somewhat of a change. These merchants are real assets to the city. I think there's finally some recognition of that."
Sharon R. Grinnell, chief operating officer of BDC and the author of the letter to Murphy, is more noncommittal on the telephone than she is in print.
"There have been ongoing discussions - not discussions, phone calls, letters, contacts - between John Murphy and other folks and the property owners themselves," she said not long after she sent her letter. "The city still has the authority to acquire. We're looking at how blocks of Lexington Street will be redeveloped. I can't be more specific than that."
As frustrating as that position can be for property owners, it is typical of many large-scale, multiyear urban redevelopment projects. Cities get the right to gain control of large numbers of properties, but they sometimes does not always need all of them as circumstances change and plans are re-evaluated.
On the west side, the redevelopment plan originally called for widespread demolition and suburban-style retailers; after Mayor Martin O'Malley took office, he agreed to a more preservation-based strategy.
The buildings whose owners Murphy is representing are listed as "contributing" to the character of the area by the National Register of Historic Places; most, he says, are on the middle ground between properties slated for demolition and those designated for preservation.
As for the National Trust's demonstration project, funded by the Ford Foundation, John Leith-Tetrault, director of the trust's Community Partners program, cautions not to regard the trust's presence at BDC as necessarily a precursor to an announcement that merchants such as Cho can remain. On the other hand, he said, "If the plan is to retain local merchants [on Lexington Street], we'd target those merchants for help."
The point of the project is to provide accounting, architectural and other assistance to small businesses in the use of historic tax credits that typically have been used for large renovation projects such as Tide Point and the old Montgomery Ward building, according to Leith-Tetrault.
That is a welcome idea to boosters of the west side, whomever it winds up helping. "We've got some good merchants in this area," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of the nonprofit West Side Renaissance Inc. "They don't have the capacity to be redevelopers of their properties. They're sitting there with buildings vacant above the first floor that could be used for offices or apartments."
Cho, who bought her building in 1995, says she would like to turn the space above her salon into apartments but is reluctant to act until she knows what the city is going to do.
"I'd like to know something, whether I can stay here, whether I can fix up," she said. "Already, I'm four years waiting."