Revival of shops brings hope

Belvedere Square turning from desolate to hot spot

`Better now than ... its heyday'

Space was virtually empty for years before renovation

July 05, 2004|By Scott Waldman | Scott Waldman,SUN STAFF

Belvedere Square, the North Baltimore shopping center that was once a retail ghost town, is in the midst of a renaissance that has local merchants and customers convinced there's no going back to the bad old days.

"I intend to be a regular," said Marcia Moylan, a Guilford resident who said she makes weekly visits to Belvedere Square.

Moylan, an antiques dealer, was part of the midday crowd shopping and having lunch at the center where major renovations are almost finished.

Last week, the area was buzzing with the sounds of saws and the pounding of hammers as construction crews worked to open a furniture store and an upscale restaurant.

The 100,000-square-foot shopping center in the 5900 block of York Road has more than 20 shops and restaurants. On Friday nights, live music fills the air. And the newest businesses, the Nouveau Contemporary Goods furniture store and Taste restaurant, are expected to open in the fall.

The shopping center's vibrancy is even more impressive considering its history. Opening in 1986 with great fanfare, Belvedere Square drew residents and students from six area universities. But in the mid-1990s, the shopping center went into a tailspin.

In 2000, as the climate worsened, merchants and neighbors blamed the shopping center's landlord. Mayor Martin O'Malley called management "abysmal." In turn, a management official blamed the flight to suburban stores, security costs and the previous administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, among other conditions.

By September 2002, less than one-third of the shopping center was leased. The square was sold that year.

Business owners said the revitalization began slowly last year with the opening of the Belvedere Square Market, a new food market. The free Friday night summer concert series has also brought back shoppers.

The square's revitalization has been a cooperative effort among four prominent names in local development: Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., William Jackson Ewing Inc., Hawkins Development Group and Manekin LLC.

The partnership has invested about $20 million in Belvedere Square, said John Pezzulla, director of property management for Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. The city and state have contributed about $4 million, he said.

"The community has been tremendously supportive," Pezzulla said.

Like many of the business owners at Belvedere Square, Melissa Taylor lives nearby. When Taylor opened her stationery store, Simply Noted, last July, she ignored people who said the shopping center wouldn't return to its former glory. Now, business is booming, and her neighbors are excited that it's making a comeback, she said.

"When you go into the stores, you're meeting the owners and people who want this to succeed as much as anyone else," Taylor said.

Jim Miller, a teacher who lives near Belvedere Square, sat at one of the tables outside the market Tuesday afternoon tutoring a student.

When the stores were empty a few years ago, he rarely stopped by, he said. Now, he said, he visits four or five times a week and does the majority of his shopping at Belvedere Square.

One of the draws is "knowing people we buy our vegetables from," he said.

The "neighborhood feel" of the area attracted restaurateur Ann Nault to Belvedere Square. After $2 million in renovations to the former Hess shoe store are completed, Nault will open Taste in mid-September. The restaurant will serve California-style cuisine in a setting that incorporates nostalgic elements of the former shoe store - such as the old children's slide.

Donal Doyle, co-owner of an Irish pub that has had a million-dollar renovation, is confident that the area will increase in popularity. The pub, Ryan's Daughter, occupies a building that once housed a Chili's restaurant, which closed during the shopping center's slump. Ryan's Daughter is decorated with antique Jameson's whiskey bottles and parts of a 200-year-old Dublin pub - all meant to convey the sense of a community meeting place.

"Down the road, they'll say how smart we were in getting this building," Doyle said.

The revitalized Belvedere Square has also helped to make the surrounding households feel more like a community, said Catherine Evans, president of the Belvedere Improvement Association.

"If you cut our community out of Baltimore and put it in the middle of a field, you'd have a village," Evans said.

Evans, who has been the association's president for nine years, described the rejuvenation of the area as a "victory." She said it has become a place frequented not only by locals but by people from other neighborhoods and outside the city.

Greg Novik - owner of Greg's Bagels, a store that stayed open through the lean times - agreed, and said some of his customers live in Mount Washington and Pikesville. He is not only happy about his business getting better but he has become a fan of new shops, such as Grand Cru wine and beer store.

"The center," Novik said, "is better now than it was in its heyday."

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