Victor's Cafe owner wants to keep shop right where it is


October 27, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

It survived Tropical Storm Isabel, but it may not survive the Four Seasons.

Victor's Cafe, an 8-year-old waterfront restaurant at 801 Lancaster St. and the first structure to open in Baltimore's Inner Harbor East renewal area, may be torn down as part of the $130 million Four Seasons hotel and condominium development.

Owner Victor DiVivo says the restaurant has a strong following and he doesn't want to move.

"We built this restaurant eight years ago for the future," he said. "Now the future is here and they want to throw me out. That's not right."

A rendering of the Four Seasons project, unveiled by Mayor Martin O'Malley at City Hall last month, shows no trace of the multi-story cafe with the wraparound terrace and clocks on top, or the marina service facility to which it is attached.

The cafe stands across Lancaster Street from the construction parcel reserved for the Four Seasons, which will have towers rising 22 and 19 stories. Victor's features an American menu with an Italian accent and panoramic views of Baltimore's harbor. For now, it remains open for business.

Representatives for the private group developing the area say the cafe would block key views from the Four Seasons' lower levels toward the water, and they would like to remove it to open up those views.

They also want to reconfigure the marina services facility so it doesn't form a wall between Lancaster Street and the harbor, and they have talked about turning part of Lancaster Street near the cafe into a pedestrian promenade, which would make it more difficult for vendors to make deliveries to the restaurant.

The Four Seasons parcel is one of the premier sites within the 20-acre Inner Harbor East community that is being developed by John Paterakis' H&S Properties Development Corp. and others between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. The Four Seasons hotel and residences are being developed by H&S, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and Doracon Contracting president Ronald Lipscomb.

Plans call for the first building phase to contain 22 stories, 200 hotel rooms, 20 extended-stay apartment suites, 26 condominiums, meeting space, a spa, three restaurants, upscale retail space and underground parking. The second tower will contain condominiums, offices and retail space.

Victor's Cafe rents its space from the Inner Harbor East developers, who own the building and presumably could buy out the lease. Baltimore City owns the land.

DiVivo, who was notified about the demolition plan several months ago, has 22 years left on his lease. He has hired a Washington-based attorney, Herman Braude of Braude & Margulies, to represent him in negotiations with H&S.

DiVivo said he took a risk and suffered through several lean years when he was the first tenant of the Inner Harbor East development.

Now that Victor's is established and more of the surrounding area is getting developed, he said, business is good and likely to get better.

"I went there when nobody wanted that location," he said. "I did a lot of advertising to bring people into my restaurant. The first two years, we only did $1 million, $1.2 million [in receipts]. Now we're doing over $3 million. Naturally I would love to stay there because I would make a lot of money. I don't want to leave."

Open since September 1995, Victor's now employs 80 people and has a weekly payroll of $12,000. DiVivo figures he serves up to 4,500 people a week.

Braude said it's difficult to come up with a fair market value for the lease and improvements because the business is still growing and the area continues to mature.

"This is the best spot in town," Braude said. "Victor located here when no one else was here. He was a pioneer. Now this is the center of the Inner Harbor, and he's doing very well. Victor has turned down [suitors'] offers to purchase his business. It's improving as more buildings are constructed."

Michael Beatty, vice president of H&S Properties, said he believes taking down the original cafe and creating more of a waterfront promenade would be good for the total development. "We tried to work backwards and see what is right for the property in terms of view corridors and public open space."

Beatty said H&S has offered to relocate Victor's to a space inside the Four Seasons, with new equipment and furnishings.

DiVivo said he did not like the proposed relocation space as much as the waterfront parcel he now occupies. He said he is concerned that any move would cause the average price of a dinner at Victor's to rise from about $22 per person to $75 per person or more, and he does not want that.

"The whole concept of being in the Inner Harbor and being moderately priced would not survive."

DiVivo and Braude said they are concerned that the city may step in and move to acquire the building using its powers of condemnation, or eminent domain, as it has done with businesses on the west side of downtown.

"We get the impression that unless we agree to their terms, they will have the city take the property by eminent domain," Braude said.

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