City may try to condemn charity's sites

Group accused of stalling project on the west side

July 01, 2006|By JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS | JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore took the first step yesterday to seize control of properties owned by a major foundation, saying the charity has stalled the key superblock project at the heart of the west-side redevelopment.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, said last night that the city alerted the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation that it will have a month to respond to a formal offer to buy the land. If the foundation declines, the city will apply for "quick-take" condemnation, Brodie said.

The Owings Mills-based nonprofit organization, a large landowner and one of the nation's biggest foundations, holds about 60 percent of the six-block swath. It wants to develop the properties itself with the Cordish Co. of Baltimore. But the city selected a New York developer early last year to redevelop the bulk of the superblock, including 12 of the Weinberg buildings. Brodie said many attempts since to negotiate a joint venture or property sale have gone nowhere.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about a dispute over west-side redevelopment incorrectly implied that William Donald Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore in 1990. Schaefer was Maryland's governor at the time.
The Sun regrets the errors.

He said the decision to move toward condemnation was made by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"It's been a difficult, lengthy and ... frustrating experience because we expected more forward progress, and we haven't seen it," Brodie said. "One might criticize us for not reaching this point sooner, frankly, in fairness to other people who've made investments."

Shale D. Stiller, president of the foundation, declined to comment when reached at his home last night. "I'm really not able to talk about it," he said.

But in May, when the city made public the long-simmering argument, Stiller said the city has no authority to acquire land for renewal from an owner with the plans and ability to do its own redevelopment. "We're prepared to go ahead," he said then. "We have all the financing to do it."

The 3.6-acre superblock site is bounded by Howard, West Clay, Liberty and West Fayette streets. The Weinberg buildings - mostly vacant - are interspersed with properties the city owns or is trying to acquire.

The city initially selected the Weinberg foundation to redevelop the superblock.

The nonprofit converted the old Stewart's department store into offices, but no other work followed, and the city eventually ended the deal, Brodie said. When it asked for developer proposals in 2004 to handle the bulk of the superblock, Weinberg did not bid, he said.

The developer selected, Chera Feil Goldman Group, has said it would not proceed without the Weinberg properties.

O'Malley called Stiller yesterday to say the city had concluded that negotiations weren't getting anywhere, Brodie said. He said the city would shortly send a letter to the foundation that will start the process that could lead to condemnation. The city is offering the higher of two independent appraisals of the properties, as is its customary process, Brodie said.

He would not reveal the size of the offer, but said that the foundation had argued that its properties are worth twice as much.

Mayoral displeasure over Weinberg property is nothing new. Harry Weinberg, dubbed "Honolulu Harry" because of his valuable holdings in Hawaii, had many buildings in the city, and many of them were vacant or underused when he died in 1990, inflaming then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. In 2001, O'Malley flirted with the idea of condemning some of the foundation's west-side property.

However, the foundation, which has $2 billion in assets, puts many its charitable donations to work here. Its founders have their names on dozens of buildings around town, from a YMCA to a cancer institute.

The city's desire to keep that money coming was evident even yesterday.

"We think they're very good people," Brodie said. "This was a difficult, very difficult decision."

jamie.smith.hopkins @baltsun.com

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