Greektown congregation OKs settlement with builder

Parishioners hope to finish church center

April 18, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Behind the new but deteriorating cultural center, a homeless man's snores drift from a lavender bedroll. He sleeps in the building's sheltered handicap ramp, nestled among dozens of paper sacks twisted around the necks of malt liquor bottles, cushioned by a layer of cigarette butts and the jacket from a man's tan leisure suit.

With a vote last night, members of the largest church in Southeast Baltimore's Greektown neighborhood approved a legal settlement that would effectively evict such squatters and reclaim the shell of a $1.3 million project that has lain vacant for two years awaiting finishing touches.

George Perdikakis, board president of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, said he was relieved to have reached a tentative agreement to restore the center, known as a plateia, into the community's centerpiece.

"We want to get the plateia operational and for it to become the gem that it should be," Perdikakis said.

Three years ago, builders broke ground on the lot at the southeast corner of Foster Avenue and Ponca Street. Neighbors watched a two-story, salmon-colored building rise.

Black wrought-iron fence surrounded a grassy courtyard. A roof settled atop an outdoor theater.

Then, trouble. As the project neared completion, a dispute arose between St. Nicholas and the contractor, MSG Associates Inc. of Columbia.

The dispute involved a "punch list" of tasks to be completed by the contractor before final payments were made.

The builder sued, construction stopped and while the case proceeded through Baltimore Circuit Court, the property decayed.

Over time, the ornate gate in the driveway, held together with yellow electrical wiring, was bent inward. Slabs of thick, pink marble tumbled from a rotting wooden crate. Vandals shattered windows.

Dripping, rusty water stained the corner bandstand. Crushed pallets of tan cinderblocks, crumbling and broken, spilled onto the loading dock.

Neighbors who had looked forward to the center's activities -- including annual community events like "A Taste of Greece" and the Greek Folk Festival -- regretted the eyesore it became.

"It is a beautiful building and we're all anxious to get it finished," said Gus M. Atsalis, who has lived across the street for nearly 29 years.

John Gavrilis, executive director of the Greektown Community Development Corp., said the condition of the property is highly unusual in a neighborhood where "the church has been the anchor and the largest private investor."

"St. Nicholas is a huge reason the community has been stable as long as it has," said Gavrilis. "This is not normal. The church has always managed all of its properties very well."

Last night, about 40 members of the church's General Assembly met and authorized a settlement in the builder's $200,000 civil suit, potentially averting a May 2 trial date.

Negotiations with the builder continue, and the church hopes to settle for less than half of the company's claim.

"I think we're very close to a resolution on the lawsuit. The $200,000 has dropped substantially," Perdikakis added.

The next step? Fund raising.

"The first thing we're going to do is improve the outside so the community doesn't have to put up with any issues with the outside," he said.

One female parishioner announced in Greek that she would approve the settlement so that the project could be completed.

Another parishioner seconded that sentiment. "We're all going to vote for it because we need to move on," she said.

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