Talks on `superblock' fail

Baltimore plans to condemn Weinberg properties on west side

November 08, 2006|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,sun reporter

Talks between the city and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to resolve a standoff over the long-stalled "superblock" project have ended, and Baltimore will move to condemn foundation-owned property in the six-block area critical to west-side redevelopment, city officials said yesterday.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler had been leading negotiations with one of the city's largest charitable foundations in an effort to avert a court fight over the property, part of an area viewed as a key link between Charles Center to the east and the University of Maryland complex to the west.

"We've been unable to reach an agreement, so we will move ahead and follow the proper procedures and in due course initiate condemnation proceedings," Tyler said yesterday. "We tried and thought we were going to resolve it, but ultimately the Weinberg Foundation made demands we could not meet in the best interest of the city."

Tyler's comments came days after Maryland's highest court ruled that Baltimore's economic development agency, which has been overseeing the superblock redevelopment, must abide by the state's open meeting and public information laws. It remanded the case, which had been filed by nine superblock property and business owners, to Baltimore Circuit Court.

Shale D. Stiller, the Weinberg Foundation's president and chief executive, said the ruling calls into question the Baltimore Development Corp.'s selection, made in closed-door meetings, of a New York-based company to develop the superblock.

"Now, I think it may well be a whole new ballgame," said Stiller, who acknowledged that talks with the city had reached an impasse.

The foundation, in partnership with Baltimore developer Cordish Co., wants to take on the redevelopment of its properties plus the rest of the site. Stiller said the team is prepared to move quickly with its plan, unveiled in July, to build a dense mix of housing, offices and shops totaling more than 2 million square feet.

Stiller said he hoped the court ruling will cause the city to rethink its selection of Chera Feil Goldman Group last year to develop the 3.6-acre parcel with 225 apartments and 64,500 square feet in retail space. The foundation's holdings represent more than half the property in the redevelopment zone.

Chera's exclusive negotiating privilege with the city to develop the project expires at year's end. Isaac Chera, a partner in the development group, who has said the team's proposal would be unworkable without the Weinberg properties, could not be reached for comment.

Lawyer John C. Murphy filed the lawsuit challenging the BDC on behalf of nine west-side property and business owners who did not want to be forced out by redevelopment. They argued that a decision by the BDC's board of directors to recommend a developer for the project was illegal because it was made behind closed doors. Murphy said he hoped the court ruling would give his clients another chance at retaining their properties.

"We requested that the recommendation from the BDC board to Mayor O'Malley be declared void because it was taken in violation of the open meetings law, and that they go through the recommended process again," Murphy said. "For my clients, the simple aim is, they want to stay there. I hope this gives my clients a greater opportunity to stay."

Tyler said yesterday the city will move ahead with the project as proposed and expects the Court of Appeals ruling and return of the case to Circuit Court to have no impact on the city's plans.

He said the city is getting revised appraisals on the Weinberg properties and expects next month to seek approval from the Board of Estimates to seize the properties, he said.

Meanwhile, M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the BDC, said he has met with representatives of the Chera group. The developer has joined forces with Atlanta-based Harold A. Dawson Co. Inc., one of the co-developers on Centerpoint, another major west-side mixed-use project, and is selecting architects and courting retailers for the "superblock" proposal, he said. Brodie said he does not believe the Court of Appeals ruling puts the city's agreement with the developer in jeopardy.

"We believe that whoever the judge is at Circuit Court will understand that we've been moving ahead in good faith," Brodie said.

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