For Midtown corner, seeming foes unite

Auction: A developer and Mount Vernon residents join to outbid a third party for a building at Charles and Read streets.

November 22, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

It had been billed as a showdown between a small handful of Mount Vernon residents desperate to save a venerable building and a wealthy parking magnate inclined to give the place the wrecking ball.

That square-off didn't happen, though. Instead, the seeming foes joined forces yesterday in an auction's dying minute to keep the decades-old MacGillivray's building at Charles and Read streets out of the hands of a third, mystery bidder.

At a final price of $600,000, the group of neighborhood residents who had hurriedly amassed pledges during the weekend eked out a win. And they did so with a late assist from Kingdon Gould III, a Howard County developer whose family owns PMI Parking.

The unlikely pairing means that the four-story brick building with a view of the Washington Monument might get the makeover residents want: turning the empty upper floors into apartments and the ground-level package store into something more "upscale."

Refurbishing and re-energizing such architecture, area leaders say, will give a needed boost to the historic cultural district - and could pay dividends if their alliance with Gould lasts.

"We have a handshake agreement to work together and make this a great corner," said Charles B. Duff Jr., executive director of the nonprofit Midtown Development Corp., who bid for the neighbors group. "It's kind of like the end of Casablanca: It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Gould said afterward that it was not fair to say, as some Midtown activists suggested, that he would have razed the building. He said there had been "no set plan" for the property. "We believe in the area; we own property in the area," Gould said.

The developer's growing presence has fueled the fears of people such as Duff and Paul Warren of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association. They knew Gould owns the empty Gampy's building next to MacGillivray's, a parking lot north of Gampy's, a house behind MacGillivray's and a parking lot across Read.

MacGillivray's, Warren said, "was the missing piece."

Warren pointed with concern to another nonprofit group, Charles Street Development Corp., and its recommendations for an updated urban renewal plan for Mount Vernon.

That group suggests that in a development area to include the MacGillivray's site, height limits should be 200 feet, 155 feet higher than the existing building. The group also says that although preservation should be "strongly encouraged," demolition might make sense "in the context of an overall development scheme."

Because the building lies in a historic district, it has some protection against demolition. But Warren said, "Someone with enough power and money has to be taken seriously, if that's what they want to do."

Fliers handed out yesterday - it wasn't clear by whom - blared a warning seemingly meant for Gould: "Don't Even Think About Tearing It Down."

The auction began just after 11 a.m. under a sunny sky. About 50 people, six of them registered bidders, gathered in front of MacGillivray's as Jack Billig tried to gin up excitement. "You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get this corner," the auctioneer said in his best showman's voice.

The auction was divided into three phases. The first bidding was for the building itself, the second for the liquor business. The final bidding would be for both collectively, trumping the earlier contest if the dollar figure exceeded the high bids of the first two phases combined.

Occasionally, Billig had to pause to tell would-be customers that the liquor store would be closed until 1 p.m.

As the auction played out, Midtown Development found itself in a difficult position. Duff, who did not want to buy a liquor store, now had to bid on both if he wanted to get the building. And he wasn't alone. Only it wasn't Gould, but a man on a cell phone, who represented the competition.

At times the bidding seemed to happen telepathically. Billig said later that the blink of an eye and scratching of a nose can be subtle ways to bid without anyone's noticing.

Duff, an auction neophyte, was befuddled at points. "There were large blocks of time when I didn't know who we were bidding against," he said.

Up the price went, from $500,000 to $525,000 to $550,000 to $575,000. Then it stopped as Duff considered his options. At one point he shook his head no. It seemed the man on the cell phone would win.

Duff and Gould had been conferring quietly during the bidding, and they spoke during the pause. It was then that Gould signed on, Warren said, and Duff upped the bid to $580,000, eventually rising to $600,000.

Robert and Debra Rombro, who own the building and business, said they are happy with the sum. Duff and his supporters, including architect Ed Hoard and neighbor Curt Decker, are happy with the result.

Midtown Development Corp. was the winning bidder; Gould's contribution to the deal was not spelled out.

Gould said later that the price went too high for him. Anyway, he said, "I'm not trying to thwart the community."

Duff's group has raised more than $200,000 but will have to raise or borrow more.

The liquor store, now advertising six-pack deals, might not be around too much longer. Will Backstrom, program director at Midtown Development, mused about a cafe selling newspapers and coffee.

"It won't be check-cashing and lottery," he said.

Sun staff writer Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

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