City enhances west-side revival plan

3 development teams picked for `superblock'

February 02, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

City development officials unveiled a more expansive plan yesterday for the linchpin of Baltimore's west-side redevelopment efforts, the cluster of key streets known as the "superblock."

Though west-side revitalization efforts have stalled at times, developers charged with overhauling the superblock showed they're confident enough about the area's prospects to bump up the scale of their original plan for bringing stores and apartments to the once-vibrant commercial arteries of Lexington and Fayette streets.

The Baltimore Development Corp. has assigned to three development teams, led by a group from New York, the renovation project of more than $100 million, which officials hope will bring life back to the largely bypassed area, helping to link Charles Center and the city's downtown core with the University of Maryland.

Since rough plans for the superblock were released last fall, the New York development team said that its investment commitment has doubled, and that the number of apartments it wants to bring to the area could nearly triple, to as many as 700 units.

"When we looked at how the city circled this blighted area, I said this is the core, and nobody's touching it," said developer Stanley Chera. "We have grand plans for great retail, restaurants, residences and a cultural area."

Proponents of the city's west-side renewal - while acknowledging that efforts have plodded - cite the reopening last year of the Hippodrome Theater and to Centerpoint, a residential and retail development not far from the superblock, as proof of progress.

But the magnitude of the superblock, in both investment dollars and what it could mean for west-side momentum, surpasses that of the other landmarks, officials say.

The 3.6-acre superblock territory, within Howard, Fayette, Clay, Park and Liberty streets, includes 51 properties. Most, but not all, of that area will be redeveloped under the proposal.

"This is the block that links everything," said Ron Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance. "The superblock is one of the most significant development opportunities in the area."

Historic scope

The city's sweeping plans to rejuvenate the west side is easily the most significant project it has undertaken since the Inner Harbor, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the BDC's president.

But, to succeed, development officials must determine how to lure people to the area to live and then give them reason to stay.

While the city has made progress with residential development, retail has been much more elusive.

"We can't get [the retail] without people living and working around it," Brodie said, adding that the interest in the superblock demonstrates that the balance might be tilting the city's way. "We think we now are in sight of that critical mass of a customer base."

The vast majority of the superblock will be developed by the New York team consisting of the Chera, Feil and Goldman families of New York. Two other developers will join them - Carmel Realty Associates of Philadelphia will renovate properties that Carmel owns on Howard and Lexington streets, and Baltimore's French Development Co. will build a five-story office building with street-level retail on a small parcel at Fayette and Liberty streets.

The New York builders have a history handling urban retail developments, with projects including malls and strip shopping centers in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Though its plans aren't firm, Goldman said that the price tag for his group's share of the project, earlier thought to be $60 million, might now be "twice that." And though the developers were initially shooting for about 300 rental units, they now would like to have as many as 700 scattered through the superblock site, including efficiencies or studios to appeal to young and single people.

For the retail element of the plan, the youthful and fashion-forward bargain retailer H&M is a likely prospect, they said. "It's a pretty good match between what they look for and what this location has to offer," Goldman said.

A grocery store is also a possibility, the developers added.

Not everyone applauds the plan.

Attorney John C. Murphy, who represents nine of the store owners who might lose their businesses to make room for redevelopment, said he worries that new will trample old.

The city has the right of eminent domain to seize properties for the redevelopment zone.

"I feel so badly for them, they've been under the condemnation gun since 1999," Murphy said of the businesses.

Brodie and the developers said that they plan to keep some of the older stores to create a dynamic mix of national and local retail, but that not every current retailer can stay.

Murphy is leading those businesses in a suit against the BDC, challenging its closed-door decision making and specifically its decision in a private meeting last fall to choose the superblock developers. As a quasi-public agency, the BDC contends it is not subject to open-meeting laws.

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