Some view new stores on west side as clear sign of progress in area

10,000-square-foot space is area's 1st construction devoted to retail in years

October 18, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

A grand opening for five small shops is usually no big deal, but Mayor Martin O'Malley heralded a ribbon-cutting yesterday on downtown's west side as a major sign of the area's progress.

"Look around," said the mayor, standing on North Eutaw Street, outside the new stores open for business across from Lexington Market. "Things are starting to happen."

The 10,000 square feet of retail space, developed by Milton Rosenbaum, is the west side's first new construction in years devoted to retail.

"I'm delighted," said Rosenbaum. The longtime west-side merchant overcame doubts to make the $1.6 million project at 231 N. Eutaw St. a reality.

O'Malley noted that much attention has been paid to the $63 million overhaul of the Hippodrome Theater and Bank of America's Centerpoint retail and residential project three blocks south.

"This development represents no small investment, either," he said. "Mr. Rosenbaum defines belief in this city."

The stores, which include a sportswear shop and check-cashing outlet, are at Saratoga and Eutaw streets on what had been a small city park.

The city sold Rosenbaum the land for $430,000 under a low-interest mortgage. Rosenbaum got private financing for construction.

The space has been leased by a "United Nations of tenants," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. Some owners are African-American, Egyptian and Korean.

The biggest store, Philadelphia-based Total Sport, sells custom-designed ball caps and jerseys, including vintage reproductions. The priciest jersey, at $470, is similar to the one worn in 1963 by San Diego Chargers receiver Lance Alworth.

Owner Michael Harris, clad in a Wes Unseld Washington Bullets No. 41 jersey, priced at $425, said he chose the location for his first Baltimore store - this opened in August, and he now has three - because of its exposure to foot traffic.

The four other stores are Golden Bazaar Jewelry II, which has another location on Howard Street; Kim's Fashion, the first non-flea-market spot for the owners; Mel's Corner check cashing, formerly of Lexington Market; and a dollar store called .99 cents The Limit.

"Absolutely exciting. Every little bit helps," said David Stein of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The nonprofit group is converting the former Stewart's department store at Howard and Lexington streets into offices at a cost of $22 million. They have not signed any tenants.

In the past, city officials have said the west side needs fewer check-cashing businesses, discount shops and beeper stores, and more restaurants and cafes, especially with new apartments opening nearby. Yesterday, though, they had only kind words for Rosenbaum's tenants.

"Tenants will change over time if the customer base changes. I think the tenants are fine, they're a good mix," Brodie said.

"You can't put a Neiman Marcus here," he said, referring to a department store known for its costly wares. "It's dreaming. Might there be a little more upscale [retail] over time? Perhaps. It remains to be seen."

Rosenbaum, former owner of Hosiery World at 211 W. Saratoga St., said the new stores give area shoppers what they need: "affordable shopping."

Two years ago, Rosenbaum angered some merchants for speaking in favor of city efforts to condemn properties for the west-side revitalization. At the same time, he quietly sought city approval for his Eutaw Street development.

Although the new project was on vacant land and did not displace any shops, some merchants said that created a conflict of interest for Rosenbaum. Yesterday he said that wasn't true.

Alvin J. Levi, who replaced Rosenbaum as president of the Market Center Merchants Association, said the charge was unfair.

Levi, who owns Howard Street Jewelers, said Rosenbaum deserves praise for bringing new retail to the area and helping merchants. "This is really a big step," he said. "This is a little guy who's really made the effort."

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