Locked-up properties are the key to growth

July 09, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

They've set up construction debris chutes down the side of the grand old building where your grandma used to pay her gas-and-electric bills. Right there, at Liberty and Lexington on the west side of downtown, in the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co, beaux-arts tower that went up in 1916, you can hear and smell old plaster rum-tumbling down a stack of interlocked chutes and into a steel container.

BGE consolidated operations in a modern tower around the corner, and now a developer named David Hillman is renovating the old building and turning it into 183 apartments. It's a beautiful thing to see.

Too bad Harry Weinberg isn't alive.

As eccentric and as stubborn as Weinberg was - the legendary self-made Baltimore billionaire accumulated property throughout the west side and sat on it for years - even he might have appreciated the new energy there now. Even "Honolulu Harry" might have wanted to catch this wave.

They're opening up Charles Center Plaza and turning it into a park, making a pedestrian-friendly link between Charles Street and the old west-side retail district. There is new construction and renovation in the works all over the place, on Fayette and Baltimore, Howard and Eutaw. You can walk from the Liberty Street to Lexington Market to the Hippodrome Theatre and the University of Maryland complex and see that this part of Baltimore is at long last coming back to life.

It's also clear that the resuscitation would go a lot faster if the city had the rights to Weinberg properties that sit vacant or underused in the midst of all this.

Just one glaring example: the old Greyhound-Trailways station on Fayette Street. It's huge. It's empty. It's an eyesore, a gaping nothing.

The O'Malley administration has served notice that it's going after the bus station and other Weinberg properties. The city wants to buy them or, if that fails, take them by eminent domain.

Good.

It's about time.

Way past time.

Anyone who sees ungratefulness in this approach - the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has donated millions to charities here and around the world - should consider the history, and not just all those dreary years when Weinberg held but refused to develop west-side properties, angering mayors and city planners. Weinberg was an accumulator, not a developer, and for most of the years after Howard Street went into decline, virtually no one was investing in properties there anyway.

Things have changed.

In 1999, nearly a decade after Harry Weinberg's death in Hawaii at age 82, the city came up with its grand renewal plan for the west side.

It called for redevelopment of the so-called superblock, bordered by Howard and Liberty, Clay and Fayette. The Weinberg Foundation owned more than half of the properties there, and the city set about acquiring 30 more of them, according to the Baltimore Development Corp.

Having been awarded exclusive negotiating rights for the west-side project, the Weinberg Foundation got things started in 2000 by converting the old Stewart's department store into offices. To help complete that project, the city sold two storefronts on Lexington Street to the foundation for 50 cents each. (That's right: The city conveyed two properties for $1 to a foundation with $2 billion in assets.)

But that's it.

That's as far as things went. The foundation's exclusive negotiating privileges expired in 2002. The Weinberg people announced plans to turn the old bus station into a 500-space parking garage, but nothing happened.

The city asked for new development proposals for the superblock.

There were 13 submissions, according to the BDC, and none from Weinberg.

That was nearly three years ago.

Merchants were relocated, properties acquired. The Hippodrome opened. The Centerpoint apartment and retail project is nearing completion, and work has started in the old Baltimore Gas & Electric Building. In addition to David Hillman, other developers are getting in on the act, investing their money in the promise of the west side.

But there's nothing happening with the Weinberg properties, and the city's superblock plan can't move forward without them.

So now the city has told the foundation that it has 30 days to respond to an offer to buy the land. If the foundation declines, the city will apply for "quick-take."

Good.

"Our unfortunate dispute with the Weinberg Foundation is not related in any way to the foundation's core charitable mission, which is unassailable," said the statement handed me Friday by M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the BDC and one of the city's most patient, positive and determined public servants. "Baltimore is a better place because of the Weinberg Foundation's many and varied contributions."

But, Brodie added during a stroll along Lexington Street, charity is charity and business is business. The city needs to finish something it started and keep the promise it made in 1999 to the west-side merchants, property owners, developers and people who have the expectation of a new retail-residential-theater district.

Harry Weinberg's name lives on, and his legend is assured - he's the man who released his accumulated wealth for the good of the world. Now it's time to release his accumulated properties for the good of Baltimore. His earthly agents need to sell or get out of the way.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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