The scent of roasting peanuts and the sight of spring flowers will be returning to Belvedere Square in the next few months as the much-anticipated restoration of a North Baltimore landmark reopens under new ownership.
A farmers' market, which will anchor the retail complex, will open April 10. It will echo the open market that was a part of the original complex, which opened in 1986 off York Road near the Senator Theatre.
But it will include new attractions and vendors designed to bring back customers who drifted away when the center fell into decline in the mid-1990s. Among the offerings will be an espresso bar, a French cheese and dairy stand, a smoked-meats stall, and a fruit and vegetable section named Planet Produce.
Later, more shops will open in the nearly empty storefronts surrounding the farmers' market - on both sides of Belvedere Avenue. In all, about 75 percent of the 105,000-square-foot complex has been leased, said Michael Ewing, a principal with Williams Jackson Ewing, the retail development firm leading the effort to attract tenants. Even with the shops and restaurants the developers have signed up, the marketplace is meant to be the heart and soul of the newly constituted Belvedere Square.
"Every city likes to have a gathering place, a town square. ... These markets are as old as time," Ewing said.
"It identifies a neighborhood," he said. Shopping at such a market is a social experience. "It's more than getting stuff at the grocery store and going home."
Williams Jackson Ewing took on the task of revitalizing Belvedere Square along with Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Manekin Corp. and Hawkins Development Group. It was something Mayor Martin O'Malley - who had represented the district as a city councilman - pressed them to do.
For Ewing, whose Baltimore-based firm has designed urban marketplaces at Grand Central Terminal in New York, Union Station in Washington and 30th Street Station and Suburban Square in Philadelphia in the last two decades, working on Belvedere Square was a trip back in time. The firm designed the retail and market mix for Belvedere Square when it opened under the ownership of James J. Ward III.
The square flourished, but began to fizzle about a decade after its opening. Ward's management was criticized. Neighborhood leaders and O'Malley blamed the landlord for neglecting the property.
When Ward proposed in 1999 a redevelopment effort that would involve bringing in "big box" retail stores, the community rebelled.
As business at the center waned, Ewing and his colleagues watched from downtown. "Ever since it started to go downhill, we kept an eye on it," Ewing said.
To get the right retail mix for the reincarnated market, Ewing has recruited vendors as close as the Waverly farmers' market and as far as the Eastern Shore and Lancaster, Pa.
"A new generation of food merchants will make their mark," Ewing said. "We develop a plan, a concept, and go find the right merchant."
Among those who have signed leases for stores adjacent to the farmers' market are a maker of hand-crafted jewelery, a Latin American importer, a wine merchant and stores selling stationery and home furnishings.
A locally owned, family-style Irish restaurant is slated to move into the former location of Chili's.
Stalwart tenants who stayed as times got leaner will remain, including Lynne Brick's gym, Greg's Bagels and Egyptian Pizza.
New sidewalks and landscaping and a good scrubbing have given the buildings a fresh look.
One of the new market vendors is Bonnie Scible, owner of Bonnie's Peanut Shoppe, now on the city's west side, near Lexington and Liberty streets. She roasts cashew, macadamia, Brazil and pistachio nuts every day and plans to sell them as well as chocolates at her Belvedere Square station.
A new flower vendor, Paula Dobbe-Maher, owns the Dutch Connection at 39th Street and Canterbury Road. She said the old Belvedere Square in its heyday reminded her of a European market.
"It's a way of buying the things you need that I'm used to," she said. "It's a pleasure to do your shopping that way."
Catherine Evans, president of Belvedere Improvement Association, said the fate of the market has been "topic No. 1 since 1995" for the community.
"Six years ago, we were asked [by the city] to put together lists of specifics, what general guidelines we would like to see," she said. The current plans are "totally in keeping" with the community's wish list, she said.
"We have invested a tremendous amount of spirit. We had an absolute conviction that our vision was the right one," she said. "It's incredibly gratifying."