Baltimore development officials moved a step closer yesterday to seizing the long-vacant Chesapeake Restaurant to make way for a mixed-use urban renewal project at the gateway to the city's Charles North arts and entertainment district.
The Board of Estimates' approval of a "quick take" condemnation of the North Charles Street property for $770,000 could lead to a lengthy dispute between the city and the current property owner. But city officials said any dispute would not delay redevelopment of the site, across from Pennsylvania Station and next to the thriving Charles Theater and a popular restaurant.
Yesterday, Chesapeake owner Robert Sapero with his attorney urged the city spending panel to halt the condemnation proceeding, saying a Baltimore developer has signed a contract to buy the property for $2 million.
"The city has been impatient for something to happen at the Chesapeake," said Sapero's attorney, John C. Murphy. "Now there is a purchaser of the property, and he wants to go ahead and put the property to productive use."
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the city had waited for years for Sapero to find a buyer for the long-vacant property. The city will push ahead to condemn the property to sell to a development team that plans to build a new community of condominiums, townhouses, shops and offices, Brodie said.
"Mr. Sapero had made repeated comments about how he was getting a restaurant in and fixing it up and none of that ever happened," Brodie said after yesterday's meeting. "While the area's getting better, this building is not getting better, and we thought it was more than time to move ahead from the city's point of view."
The BDC chose Station North Development Partners LLC last month to build the estimated $40 million to $50 million Chesapeake Square project, after seeking proposals from developers. At the time, Sapero said he had a pending contract on the property but could not disclose the buyer or purchase price.
Sapero identified his buyer yesterday as Victor Cheswick, a Baltimore investor and developer. Cheswick did not return a phone call yesterday.
The Station North Development team plans to renovate the Chesapeake with shops, restaurants and an art gallery on the ground floor and five subsidized artists' lofts on the upper floors. The developers envision a 13-story, 91-unit condominium tower behind the former restaurant with street-level retail and second-floor office space.
And on a parking lot owned by a member of the team, the Shecter family, developers would build 11 townhouses, selling for an estimated $375,000 and up, on top of a four-story, 190-space parking garage along the alley east of Charles Street.
Brodie said the city offered Sapero $770,000 in June but never heard back from him. The city now intends to file a "quick take" suit. The city's law department said it expected to file the lawsuit about two months after it receives the paperwork from the BDC, said Andrew Bailey, principal counsel in the city solicitor's office.
At that point, the owner would have 10 days to challenge the city's right to take the property, and if the court rules in the city's favor, the title would pass to the city. A challenge to the property's value could take longer, and ultimately go to trial, Bailey said.
The city has the authority to use the "quick take" process when the property is one of a number of properties to be redeveloped for urban renewal.
"This is ridiculous, when you have a legitimate buyer, ready, willing and able, and the city takes out of the sky - wishful thinking - a purchase price for the property when there's a viable buyer that's going to be paying $2 million, somebody has lost their mind," Sapero said yesterday after the Board of Estimates meeting.
If an appeal of the condemnation suit is filed, the court would be deciding a question of value, not of ownership, Bailey said.
Even if the case stalls in the courts for a lengthy period over the question of value, it would have no bearing on the ability of the city or the developers to proceed with the project, Brodie said.
When asked if he would appeal a quick-take lawsuit, Sapero said, "The sky's the limit in terms of whatever it will take. ... It's a wrongful taking to begin with. We already have a contract. If they are going to interfere with a legitimate transaction, they are going to have to explain that to a higher authority."
A spokesman for the development team, Chris Regan, a principal with Tower Hill Development, declined to comment yesterday on the project or the looming dispute.
"We're not going to make any comment," Regan said.
The team includes Tower Hill Development & Consulting LLC; Michael and Alan Shecter, the owners of buildings on the same block that house the Charles Theatre and the Everyman Theater; Florida-based developer the Miller Group and Stephen A. Masciola.
Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.