Market's slow start has many worried

Rebirth: Six months after its reopening, Belvedere Square has failed to achieve the success its backers were hoping for.

October 11, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Italian shoes, espresso chocolate tortes and candles scented to smell like falling leaves. They, among other posh pieces of merchandise, are there for the taking at the city's Belvedere Square marketplace.

But hardly anybody's taking.

Six months after a grand opening at which Baltimore and business leaders extolled the rebirth of the once-deserted shopping center, Belvedere Square isn't living up to the financial and political hopes staked on its success, and some are worried.

Among them is Mayor Martin O'Malley, one of the most ardent proponents of reviving the square, who sent out a letter recently to every resident within walking distance of the shopping center and pleaded with them to buy some of the items languishing on shelves.

"The Belvedere Square market ... is symbolic of the rebirth of Baltimore City and an element of improved quality of life for you and your neighbors," O'Malley wrote. "The success of the Belvedere Square market depends on your patronage. I hope to see you shopping and being part of Baltimore's rebirth."

Despite a significant investment of time, money and political will, Belvedere Square faces difficult hurdles, not the least of which is a sluggish economy. Another is that the center's location in middle-class Govans might not be the best place for an upscale shopping district.

"It's a little too upscale overall," said Susan Rudy, a Parkville engineer in her mid-40s who recently drove to Belvedere Square for a lunchtime visit. "People in this part of town are more down-to-earth.

"I really hope it's successful. But it's not entirely clear they hit the mark just right for people who live here."

About three-quarters of the 100,000 square feet of retail space is open, and 90 percent is leased, said Michael Ewing, a principal partner in the redevelopment. Until the whole space is occupied, food merchants are not paying rent, he said.

Last year, the mayor crafted a $14.5 million deal that brought together four of the city's most prominent real estate and retail development companies with public funds for renovating the market, expanding the parking lot and streetscape improvements.

In his four years in office, finding a fix for the square - where O'Malley says he courted his wife - became his most extensive involvement in addressing a neighborhood eyesore.

The mayor is working hard to try to make the square work.

In December, he plans to play with his band at the opening of an Irish pub, Ryan's Daughter, said the pub's owner, Donal Doyle, 42. A native of Ireland, Doyle is importing granite from his home county and pieces of a pub that 200 years ago enlivened the Trinity College grounds in Dublin.

Many in the city miss the Belvedere Square of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the marketplace was a city institution of sorts, with bustling shops and counters that became casual meeting places for friends.

Its popularity declined in the mid-1990s amid accusations of landlord neglect and gaping vacancies. In discussing Belvedere Square's future, community meetings often centered on its past glory.

The city is trying to recapture that glory with help from the Baltimore retail development firm Williams Jackson Ewing, which put together the original mix of shops in Belvedere Square in the early 1980s. Since then, its signature projects include Union Station in Washington, Grand Central Terminal in New York.

Ewing and other investors have put about $10 million on the line, betting that a place where one can find creamline in the milk, lattes, sushi and hearty Ploughboy lunch soups will float financially. "You get what you pay for," Ewing said. "You don't see seafood like that floating around the Giant."

But even a regular customer such as Denise Whiting, owner of Cafe Hon, wonders if the choices are too chic.

"It's almost too upscale," Whiting said. "And there's not enough critical mass. The bottom line is, it needs a generator, and there's no generator store."

Ewing, head of the retail project, said the concept needs more time to jell, noting that the complex is not fully occupied. He said he is upbeat about what he has seen, though.

"I'm encouraged by repeat customers," Ewing said. "People like it, it looks great, and there are some real personalties. The [two] restaurants will make a big difference."

Along with Ryan's Daughter, another restaurant, Taste, is scheduled to open this winter, offering California cuisine.

Discouraged merchants who stuck through a slow summer hope the answer will be Ceriello. The Italian specialty shop with butchered meat is doing well in Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan and is to open a shop here this fall.

Steve Dietrich, proprietor of Planet Produce, agreed that an anchor shop is needed in the marketplace. "We're anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ceriello and all the proposed tenants," he said.

Gail Sunderman, second vice president of the Belvedere Improvement Association, said she often walks to the square from her home office for lunch. Her expectations have been exceeded, she said. The community is trying to support it, she said.

Catherine Evans, president of the association, said some neighbors were puzzled that the marketplace opened before the entire square was open for business. But she added, "It has every chance of being even better than it was before."

Greg Novik, who operated Greg's Bagels through the dry spell, has become known as the unofficial mayor of Belvedere Square.

Novik says that there is only so much O'Malley and others can do to make the place hum again. "They've given us what it takes to make it," he says.

He dismissed early jitters among marketplace merchants with a shrug. "They don't know what bad is," he said.

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