BDC votes more time for talks on project

Developers seek sale of west-side parcel

December 22, 2006|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN REPORTER

The developers selected to rejuvenate Baltimore's blighted superblock area have been granted a 90-day extension to negotiate with the city's economic development agency and complete the purchase of west-side properties slated for redevelopment.

Baltimore Development Corp.'s board voted yesterday to extend the exclusive negotiating privilege the city granted nearly two years ago to Chera Feil Goldman Group of New York, which leads the development team, Lexington Square Partners. Lexington asked for extension of the agreement, set to expire Dec. 31, after failing to conclude a sales contract to buy the properties by year's end.

The Board of Estimates, the city's spending board, had been scheduled to vote Wednesday on a contract to sell 37 properties in 3.6 acres to the developer for $21.6 million. More than half of the properties are owned by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, one of the city's largest charities. The Chera Group plans to build 400 market-rate apartments, 1,000 parking spaces and as much as 200,000 square feet of shops.

But the board postponed the vote until its Jan. 10 meeting after Comptroller Joan M. Pratt raised concerns that the agreement put no cap on the cost of demolition, environmental cleanup and streetscape improvements that the developer could deduct. The agreement estimates those costs at $8 million.

Pratt also said she wanted more clarification on the failed negotiations between the city and the Weinberg Foundation over the Weinberg properties. The city has said it would proceed with a "quick take" condemnation of the Weinberg properties.

Just before the board voted unanimously to extend the negotiating privilege, board Chairman Arnold L. Williams said he had denied a request from an attorney representing owners of superblock properties to speak to the board. Williams said the board was deliberating among its members and not hearing from the public.

That didn't stop the attorney, John C. Murphy, one of those crowded into the boardroom for BDC's second-ever open meeting, from standing up and asking for time for his clients, west-side business operators and owners whose properties are sought by the city to make way for redevelopment. Murphy said his clients have operated for years under the threat of condemnation without a chance to talk to the board deciding the fate of their property. Continuing negotiations between his clients and the city should be part of the land disposition agreement but were left out, Murphy told the BCD board.

"We have two trains running down the same tracks that are going to collide," Murphy said. "This is a very serious problem we want to discuss with the board."

Business owners such as Yon O. Park, owner of Modern Mode shop on West Lexington Street for 12 years, who attended the board meeting "have endured eight years of living under a condemnation ordinance," Murphy said. "We want the board to hear from these people."

Williams once again denied Murphy's request, saying "the board has deliberated deeply on the superblock issues and are fully aware of them. The only thing before us is the extension."

That denial visibly angered Murphy.

"This is a $250 million project," he said. "I don't understand why we can't have a discussion. This is terribly unfair to the city of Baltimore and those business owners. This is absolutely wrong."

The board voted a few seconds later. Board member Atwood "Woody" Collins III, president of M&T Bank's Mid-Atlantic division, recused himself because of a prior relationship with one of the partners in the Chera Feil Goldman Group, Lloyd Goldman, with whom Collins said he had served on an M&T advisory board in New York.

After the board meeting, M.J. "Jay" Brodie, BDC president, and Williams defended the decision to deny Murphy and his clients time to speak.

Brodie said he had pledged during many conversations with Murphy that he would do his best to incorporate the existing businesses in the new development, in an area bounded by Lexington, Liberty, Fayette and Howard streets, but that he could not conclude negotiations with them until the city has a final agreement with a developer.

"Mr. Murphy will stand up and represent his clients in the way he sees fit," Brodie said.

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