City still plans to take land of charity

Condemnation looms as time grows short

November 22, 2006|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun reporter

Baltimore officials are moving ahead to condemn property of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation as part of the major west side redevelopment project, while hoping to sign a final agreement by year's end with the New York developer chosen for the job.

But local business leaders are exploring ways for the superblock project to move forward without a prolonged legal fight and to resolve the deepening rift between the city and one of its largest charities.

The city and the Weinberg Foundation blame each other for the collapse of the latest round of negotiations. The Weinberg buildings comprise more than half the property in the six-block redevelopment area.

"We regret it. ... It's unfortunate, but we're moving forward with updated appraisals and moving toward quick-take condemnations," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, head of the city's development agency, the Baltimore Development Corp.

He said yesterday that the city would seek approval from the Board of Estimates to proceed with condemnation either in late December or January.

At the same time, he said, the city is working toward completing a land disposition agreement with the developer, Chera Feil Goldman Group, by the end of the year.

Chera's exclusive negotiating privilege with the city to redevelop the superblock ends at the end of the year, but the development agency's board could vote at its Dec. 21 meeting to extend that negotiating period, Brodie said.

In a bid to show the long-stalled project was moving ahead, the development agency announced yesterday that Chera has hired an architect and will work with a minority partner from Atlanta - both developments reported earlier this month.

The development agency said the Harold A. Dawson Co. of Atlanta will co-develop housing planned for the 3.6-acre superblock.

The design of the superblock's housing, shops and offices will be done by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, the New York architectural firm that designed the new master plan for the Inner Harbor.

The Chera group has proposed building 225 apartments and 64,500 square feet of shops in the superblock area bounded by Lexington, Fayette, Howard and Liberty streets.

A spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee said yesterday that business leaders are hoping to avoid the lengthy battle likely to come with condemnation proceedings, even after two unsuccessful rounds of negotiations between the city and the Weinberg Foundation.

"The GBC and others are seeking to explore ways to resolve the superblock issue short of a condemnation proceeding that could get tied up in prolonged, adversarial litigation," said Gene Bracken, GBC spokesman.

"Business leaders are looking for a less contentious way to resolve the situation, but I don't think there's any consensus about how to resolve it," Bracken said.

Isaac Chera, a partner in the Chera group, said yesterday that he hoped the city and Weinberg Foundation could still work out a settlement but warned that further delays could derail the project.

"I was quite disappointed that it got hung up on one issue. At this point, we are just continuing to operate as business as usual. We are going to continue to operate under that premise until we're given reason not to. Any more delays could risk this project ever being developed if the economy turns."

The city's determination to proceed to condemnation comes as Mayor Martin O'Malley, who made the final decisions to select the Chera group and to proceed with condemnation, prepares to leave office in January to become governor.

The issue then would be left to his successor, City Council President Sheila Dixon. Dixon also has one of the five votes on the Board of Estimates. Phone calls to Dixon's office were not returned yesterday. Dixon's executive director, Ruffin Brown, said last week that she would defer to O'Malley until he leaves office.

The city set the clock ticking on condemnation in July. Later that month the Weinberg Foundation unveiled plans to redevelop the entire superblock in conjunction with the Cordish Co. into a dense mix of housing, offices and shops of more than 2 million square feet.

Subsequently Weinberg and the city embarked on negotiations to resolve the dispute.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler, who had been leading the talks, said earlier this month that the parties were unable to reach an agreement and the city would move to seize the properties.

Last week, Brodie told the Baltimore Development Corp.'s first public meeting that the city had twice thought a deal had been reached only to have Weinberg officials raise new issues.

Shale D. Stiller, the Weinberg Foundation's chairman and chief executive, declined comment yesterday. But in an interview earlier this month, Stiller said the foundation had been unfairly painted as the villain in the standoff.

"We have done everything we could have possibly done in the past two years to move the superblock forward," Stiller said in the interview.

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