Renewal project stalled in city

Baltimore group blames Weinberg Foundation for superblock standoff

May 29, 2006|By LORRAINE MIRABELLA | LORRAINE MIRABELLA,SUN REPORTER

Revitalization of six blocks at the heart of Baltimore's west-side renewal effort has stalled because of a standoff between the city and a private foundation that owns more than half the land.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation says it intends to push ahead with Baltimore-based Cordish Co. to redevelop its 17 properties included in the so-called superblock project.

City economic development officials, who say they have made numerous attempts to strike a deal with the foundation, blame it for holding up the project and say that condemnation would be a last resort.

And the New York developer tapped to build apartments and stores in the core of Baltimore's old retail district says it will back out if the Weinberg Foundation refuses to give up the land.

Economic development officials want the foundation to sell, swap properties or work with the New York developer on the project, according to M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

The 3.6-acre superblock is the largest redevelopment site on the west side and is considered the linchpin for bringing residents, shops and businesses to a deteriorated stretch between Charles Center to the east and the University of Maryland complex to the west.

"This is the last big piece in the east-west connection, and these blocks are in poor shape," Brodie said.

The stalemate could threaten the momentum of the west-side redevelopment, which has included projects such as the Hippodrome's rebirth as a live theater, the Bank of America's Centerpoint apartment and retail project, and the conversion of the former Hecht's department store into apartments, said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of Westside Renaissance Inc.

"The superblock is currently, clearly, a blighting influence on the area, so it's unacceptable for the redevelopment not to proceed," Kreitner said. "People have made decisions based on the redevelopment plan that includes all of the superblock. It's not simply those who have invested here, but people who've chosen to live in the area, locate offices or start up or continue retail operations. There are literally hundreds of decisions that have been made premised on the superblock redevelopment moving forward."

David Hillman, who converted the former Hecht's in 2001 into the 173-apartment Atrium, said he's had to discount rents because the Howard Street building sits across from the superblock.

"The Atrium is losing half a million [dollars] a year -- fully occupied -- because of the neighborhood," said Hillman, chairman and chief executive of Southern Management Corp. "The view is pretty awful. We look at the superblock, which looks like a super-debacle."

Early last year, the city selected New York-based Chera Feil Goldman Group to redevelop the bulk of the superblock, bounded by Howard, West Clay, Liberty and West Fayette streets, including 12 of the Weinberg buildings.

"If the Weinberg Foundation holds out, we wouldn't proceed," said Isaac Chera, a partner. "We'd be left with a Swiss cheese group of properties. We wouldn't be able to do the type of project we want to do."

He said his team submitted its proposal for 225 apartments and 64,500 square feet of shops with the understanding that the city would assemble the properties. The team's exclusive negotiating privilege with the city to develop the project expires at year's end. Though it has invested time in interviewing architects and courting retailers such as Zales, Junior's restaurant out of Brooklyn, N.Y., and hip retailer H&M, the developers say they can't move forward without more certainty.

"We owe it to the people of this city to move forward," Chera said. "We were told they have a `quick take' [condemnation] program. It would be a shame to have this stall indefinitely, and who knows what will happen with the economy?"

But the Weinberg Foundation has always intended to redevelop the properties itself, never to sell them to the city, said Shale Stiller, president and chief executive of the foundation. And with Cordish's development expertise, the joint venture has the ability to redevelop the entire superblock, he said.

"We are prepared to go ahead," Stiller said. "We have all the financing to do it. We would hope we could get started on this right away. This area is the hole in the doughnut in terms of downtown development. This could be such a shot in the arm for downtown Baltimore, but nothing ever happens."

Stiller said the city has no authority to acquire properties for urban renewal from an owner with the plans and the means to do its own renewal project.

City development officials contend that the Weinberg Foundation never pushed forward with redevelopment after its first project, the transformation of the former Stewart's department store, at Howard and Lexington streets, into offices that will become the headquarters for Catholic Relief Services next year.

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