New bid for west side

Weinberg charity poses idea amid dispute over land

July 22, 2006|By LORRAINE MIRABELLA | LORRAINE MIRABELLA,SUN REPORTER

The charitable foundation facing potential city condemnation of its property in six blocks critical to Baltimore's west-side revitalization moved yesterday to save its stake in the huge urban renewal project, proposing to develop a mix of housing, offices and shops totaling more than 2 million square feet.

The effort by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation is the latest salvo in a tug of war between the nonprofit and city development officials over the future of a parcel viewed as a key link in continuing the momentum of the millions of dollars invested in west-side projects.

The years-long dispute threatens to further complicate efforts to infuse new life into a struggling stretch of downtown, the so-called superblock. It also underscores the obstacles facing a city that threatens to use its condemnation authority against a powerful property owner that can assist in such a revival.

Municipalities' use of eminent domain for economic development was reinforced by a Supreme Court decision last year that backed the power of a Connecticut town to seize homes to make way for redevelopment. But in that case, New London, Conn., was taking on homeowners, not a wealthy and influential institution that wants to carry out a large-scale project involving its properties. The Weinberg Foundation owns more than half the land in the six-block area bounded by Howard, West Clay, Liberty and West Fayette streets.

In presenting a vision for a dense mix of housing, shops and offices yesterday to the board of the Downtown Partnership, the Weinberg Foundation and its partner, the Cordish Co., hoped to persuade the city to rethink its choice of a New York developer to oversee the project. It also wanted to avert the city's threatened seizure of its properties.

"My goal in going to the Downtown Partnership was to explain our vision for the entire west-side area," said Shale Stiller, president and chief executive of the Weinberg Foundation.

Yesterday, city officials left the door open to the possibility of Weinberg's participation, though they said the New York developer chosen last year would lead the project.

"There may yet be a role, a partnering role, for the foundation and the Cordish Co. to play, and we would be having conversations about it," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. and a member of the Downtown Partnership's board. Brodie saw the detailed plan for the first time yesterday. "I thought that what they showed us today was a valuable contribution to the ongoing thinking about the west side. There were some useful ideas, and serious thought was given to it."

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said that switching developers would pose an ethical, more than a legal, problem for the city at this point.

"The only way to encourage economic development in the city is for there to be integrity in the process," Tyler said.

"We had a process, and a developer was selected. The Weinberg Foundation, for reasons they think are good, never bid. Be that as it may, if you don't bid, you don't bid.

"We are moving forward with our plans to acquire the property, and there may be some role, as of yet undefined, for the Weinberg Foundation," Tyler said.

"But the primary and principal developer will be the group selected as a result of the competitive process."

The city selected New York developer Chera Feil Goldman Group to develop the 3.6-acre parcel last year.

The group's exclusive negotiating privilege with the city to develop the project expires at year's end.

At yesterday's meeting, the foundation and Cordish officials outlined how they would preserve historic buildings and facades, and add 10 to 12 buildings up to 35 stories. It would include 890 apartments, ground-level shops and restaurants encompassing 151,750 square feet, and 206,000 square feet of office space. The plan would sharply increase the density that has been proposed by Chera Feil Goldman Group, which plans 225 apartments and 64,500 square feet of shops.

Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of Westside Renaissance Inc., a group that works to encourage economic development, urged reconsideration of the proposal.

"This is the most exciting and substantive plan for the superblock that I have seen," Kreitner said.

"It truly raises the bar for Baltimore, and it's my hope and that of others that this plan would be given very serious consideration as the process allows, or as things proceed."

The city has said the Weinberg Foundation had rejected its efforts to have the foundation sell its properties or join the New York developer in a joint venture.

City officials took steps this month to seize control of 12 Weinberg properties as a last resort to keep the project on track. The foundation has until Aug. 3 to respond.

Yesterday, during a 50-minute presentation to the Downtown Partnership's board, Stiller denied that the foundation has held up progress.

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