Supersize interests

July 09, 2006

It's been called the "superblock" because of its size and impact on the downtown revitalization of Baltimore's west side. The renovation of the 3.6-acre site has languished for years because of the project's scale, the complexity of addressing the competing interests of diverse groups - including the largest property owner, the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation - and shifting development schemes.

When the city sought proposals in 2003 to develop the site, the philanthropy didn't participate. That was a missed opportunity for the foundation, which had held the development rights, because the city then selected a New York development group and 10 days ago moved to seize the 17 Weinberg properties.

Mayor Martin O'Malley made the tough call because the project has dragged on and on - and his impatience is understandable. But the controversial decision to take the properties may not hasten the process. The cost - at least $15 million, by some estimates - and the accompanying litigation will consume time and dollars.

In recent weeks, the Weinberg Foundation, under new leadership, has reasserted its right and desire to develop the project itself. But after numerous false starts, it's difficult to give credence to the seriousness of its intention. And for the city to simply abandon the New York development group that it chose through a legitimate public process because the Weinberg Foundation wants a second chance would smack of favoritism.

However, if the foundation, with its $2 billion in assets, is committed to doing this deal, it should prove it - put together a stellar development team and shop its vision around town. A revitalized superblock should offer the city a lively mix of retail and residential that reflects the diversity of downtown residents, shoppers and merchants.

Competing visions may lead city officials to halt condemnation proceedings - or confirm that they made the right move.

It's been nearly a decade since the Weinberg foundation underwrote the original west-side strategic plan, recognizing that improving its rundown properties should be part of a comprehensive revitalization of the entire moribund retail district. Now, projects on the west side are flourishing - consider the Hippodrome Theatre, Centerpoint, the rehabilitated Hecht Co. building and the Weinberg Foundation's own renovation of the old Stewart's department store.

The success of a revived west side appears even more tied to a timely superblock makeover. Whether a group of New Yorkers or better-late-than-never philanthropists can pull it off, the imperative should be, just do it.

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