Plans for west side are unveiled

City seeks revitalization for five-square-block area; 'Another huge step,' mayor says

October 23, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Sun Staff

The city plans to take control of a faded five-square-block area on the west side and find developers willing to transform it into a vibrant collection of shops, restaurants and homes.

Redeveloping the 3.6-acre "super block" area, which encompasses the Greyhound bus terminal and half of the Lexington Street pedestrian mall, is part of a broader plan to revitalize the city's west side. That effort also includes restoration of the Hippodrome Theatre and construction of Bank of America's Centerpoint retail and residential project.

"This block is pivotal in rebuilding the heart of the city," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., a business group.

The city is inviting developers to submit plans for all or part of the site, starting Monday, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced yesterday. The deadline for proposals is Feb. 27.

The plan was unveiled after a meeting of the city's Board of Estimates, which gave a boost to another west-side plan. The board agreed to sell 4.7 acres to the University of Maryland, Baltimore for a health sciences research park for $1. The project is expected to create 2,000 jobs.

O'Malley characterized the super block plan as "another huge step in the redevelopment of the west side."

"It fills in the blank that currently exists on the west side," the mayor said.

The area is home to 51 properties, which the city will buy or seize by eminent domain if owners won't sell.

Some business owners -- sellers of peanuts, shoes and women's clothing -- have no intention of leaving, said John C. Murphy, an attorney who represents several merchants.

"I can't conceive the mayor would tell these businesses that they can't stay on the west side," he said. "We're certainly going to assert our right to stay. We're longtime businesses. They want to be part of this revived west side."

The city will urge developers to include merchants who want to stay, said Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

By seeking proposals and preparing to condemn properties, the city is bypassing a charitable foundation that once had exclusive rights to redevelop the block.

The city had planned to convey condemned properties to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation for its Howard Street USA development. But the $150 million retail and residential project never came to pass.

The foundation and partner Arrow Parking will proceed with construction of an $8.6 million garage on the site of the Greyhound terminal, which is relocating, Grinnell said. The site is within the super block area, but the garage will not be offered to developers, she said.

The super block area is bounded by Fayette, Liberty, Clay and Howard streets. It includes the southern side of Lexington Street, and the southern half of the Lexington Street mall.

A delayed start

Part of the pedestrian mall was opened to autos about a year ago at the request of merchants, who said it would give them more visibility. The city plans to open the rest of the street to traffic, Grinnell said.

The city had expected to start redeveloping the block four years ago. But it put those plans on hold because of concerns that the restored Hippodrome would rise, gleaming but isolated, in an otherwise bleak part of town, BDC officials said. As a result, the city redirected its attention on the area immediately around the theater.

With the $70 million theater slated to open in February and the $80 million Centerpoint project by its side, the city is looking again at the Lexington Street mall area.

O'Malley said he envisions "a residential center for downtown living for those who can't afford to pay what they charge for those waterfront condos." He wants a plan that "makes us more of a 24-7 city, where you'll actually see people walking on the streets after 8 o'clock at night."

"I think it's going to be a very dynamic mixed-use development, and it would certainly contain a lot of street-level retail activity," Kreitner said. "We're likely to see a mix of some residential and office commercial uses."

Proposal parameters

The proposals that the city is requesting will lay out any tax breaks or other help the developers want from the city in addition to the physical plans.

The city intends to recoup from developers the cost of acquiring the super block properties, but it might be willing to offer tax breaks or other incentives, Grinnell said.

"We're not looking to give away anything with nothing in exchange," she said.

The proposals may include new construction as well as rehabilitation of existing structures. Developers will have to abide by certain restrictions related to historic buildings, BDC officials said.

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