Belvedere marketplace reopens today

Developer thinks it found right mix for retail success

April 10, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The retail developers for North Baltimore's Belvedere Square marketplace -- which reopens today under new ownership -- say the key to their successful projects across the country is not bricks and mortar but the intangible "sparkle."

The alchemy varies from city to city. "Just because it worked in Washington doesn't mean it will work in New York," said Michael Ewing, a principal with Williams Jackson Ewing.

The firm is based in a St. Paul Street high-rise filled with renderings of some of its acclaimed projects: Washington's Union Station, New York's Grand Central Terminal and the University of Pennsylvania's Sansom Commons in Philadelphia.

Working with real estate developers, who construct the shells, Williams Jackson Ewing recruits the right mix of merchants to fill them. And it does it by finding the unusual suspects -- not just chain retailers.

In Belvedere Square's fresh food market that reopens today with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, the new offerings will include a bakery, gourmet-to-go food, flowers, nuts and candy, produce, coffee, a smokery for meats, fish and cheese, and a stand for seafood and sushi.

Other parts of the project will open later this year, including a restaurant called Taste, and a family-style Irish restaurant called Ryan's Daughter.

"They are among the top urban developers in creating important anchors in urban, neighborhood and university revitalization," said Michael Beyard, a resident fellow at the nonprofit Urban Land Institute in Washington.

"They do spectacular, exciting projects that are the most difficult and complex to do, taking public-private partnerships to achieve. They tread where no one else went before," Beyard said.

The secret, says principal W. Lehr Jackson, is finding new uses for shabby spaces.

On the well-walked Penn commons, for example, Jackson said the aim was to "make old people feel young and students feel part of the community."

The firm converted a run-down retail district into a vibrant campus center anchored by a university bookstore.

Union Station, often considered one of the nation's most striking public interiors, was closed and condemned 25 years ago and was reopened to the public with shops and cafes in 1988. Choosing those shops and cafes -- in a tenant mix pleasing to the community as well as train and Metro travelers -- was Williams Jackson Ewing's part in that project.

A decade later, the firm got the nod to develop the retail mix at New York's renovated Grand Central Terminal, where they replaced truck loading docks with upscale stores and put restaurants on balconies.

The partners say the stakes are just as high when it comes to solving the problems of Belvedere Square, a community eyesore for several years.

"I'll get as much satisfaction out of Belvedere Square as Union Station, seeing the community respond," Ewing, 57, said.

He expects to drive in with his family from Monkton on weekends to see how the retooled Belvedere Square is taking hold and to keep an eye on the newly recruited merchants, whom they found by scouting locally.

The project matters not only because of the hometown tie. In 1985, Williams Jackson Ewing acted as the retail developers for the original Belvedere Square, owned by James J. Ward III, to which people flocked for several years until the square foundered in the mid-1990s.

"We kept hearing, `We want the old Belvedere Square back,'" Ewing said. "It was managed into the ground."

After a community outcry, and at Mayor Martin O'Malley's prodding, a redevelopment team composed of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, the Hawkins Development Group, the Manekin Corp. and Williams Jackson Ewing acquired last year the nearly vacant shopping center. City and state funding pumped $4.2 million into the $14 million deal.

"We couldn't have done this by ourselves," Ewing said.

As young men, the three partners worked for James Rouse and absorbed his philosophy about preserving and enhancing cities. Rouse, the late founder of The Rouse Co., developed Columbia and Baltimore's Harborplace.

Their other great influence was the late architect Benjamin Thompson, a Bostonian and Harvard University dean who collaborated with Rouse. He had a superb sense of the exuberance that results from encountering a lively urban setting, Ewing and Jackson said.

"The public loves interaction with other people at a distance," Ewing said. "They come for the experience."

And when the alchemy happens, the sparkle is as clear as day. "It's all there," said Jackson, "like a Broadway play."

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