`Cornerstone of resurgence' is threatened

Belvedere Square thrives while historic Senator Theatre faces foreclosure auction

February 07, 2007|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun reporter

Even on a frigid day like yesterday, the parking lot was full at Belvedere Square and the market was buzzing with customers.

Melanee Stroovman and Randy Cornish, colleagues who work in Mount Washington but come to the market nearly every day for lunch, were among the patrons warming themselves with soup from Atwater's soup counter and bakery. "Whenever we come in, especially during the week ... these tables are always full," Stroovman said.

Indeed, Belvedere Square in North Baltimore has seen a resurgence in recent years. Once a deteriorating retail center, the square underwent a thorough renovation in 2002 funded in part by the city and state and by private developers. Today, shoppers are plentiful and the restaurants have no shortage of diners.

As news broke earlier this week that the landmark Senator Theatre on the other side of York Road could be sold at foreclosure auction, business at Belvedere Square was booming. But retailers said yesterday that while they were confident that the shopping center had attained its own momentum, the Senator contributed to the mix.

A popular film or big opening at the Senator often means increased foot traffic in Belvedere Square, merchants said.

"Things like that are an important part of the whole energy here. A theater is a big part of it, particularly a theater like that, it's a classic," said Atwater's owner Ned Atwater, adding that if the theater were to close, "the neighborhood as a group would be hurt."

"In its way, it's one of the cornerstones of the neighborhood - no question," agreed Greg Novik, owner of Greg's Bagels in Belvedere Square.

The theater's destiny may still be an open question. Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator, acknowledged on Monday that he was $90,000 overdue on a $1.2 million mortgage on the theater. But in an interview yesterday, Kiefaber said he has since received an outpouring of support from the community and is hopeful about the theater's future.

Kiefaber said he received more than 250 e-mails after The Sun reported yesterday that the theater was scheduled to be sold at foreclosure auction later this month. One man came to the Senator and bought $1,000 in gift certificates to show his support, Kiefaber said.

"Unfortunately, I can't report that I got the $90,000 in hand that I will need ... but I am more encouraged than ever that we are going to be in a position to achieve a very viable economic future for the Senator Theatre," Kiefaber said.

The resurgence of Belvedere Square has helped business at the Senator, but the key economic issue facing the theater is getting the top films that it wants to run, Kiefaber said. While crowds coming to the movies may end up dining at Belvedere Square restaurants afterward, the square won't necessarily put patrons into the theater if it's not playing a movie they want to see, Kiefaber said.

Ann Nault, the owner and executive chef of Taste restaurant in Belvedere Square, knows what a popular movie can do for business. With Dreamgirls, the current attraction, playing, the restaurant has seen a ton of walk-ins, she said.

"It's incredible the amount of foot traffic there has been in this square, and a lot of it has to do with the Senator," she said. "They were the cornerstone of this resurgence."

Built in the mid-1980s, Belvedere Square saw its initial success fade as tenants gradually pulled up stakes, driven out, they complained, by ever-rising costs. After languishing for years, it was redeveloped by a team that invested about $20 million. The city and state put in about another $4 million, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. It reopened in April 2003.

Today, business owners say the square has blossomed into a neighborhood center of shopping and dining.

"People are realizing that they can go shopping across the street, get a glass of wine at [wine bar] Grand Cru, have dinner here," Nault of Taste said.

Steve Appel, who moved his furniture store, Nouveau Contemporary Goods, from Charles Street in Mount Vernon to Belvedere Square in 2004, said the 2006 holiday season was the store's best yet.

And he's not the only one. Atwater came to Belvedere Square when it first reopened and was only 50 percent leased. Today, it's fully leased, he said. Each year, Atwater's sales continue to grow.-the shop even took over more space in the food market about a year and a half ago.

While the square would likely feel some impact if the Senator were to close, Atwater remains optimistic.

"Each year the sales grow partly because we become more established and partly because there's more traffic," Atwater said. "The future seems really bright."

stacey.hirsh@baltsun.com

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