Mayoral intervention

March 11, 2007

The superblock saga has new supersized players. Lawyer Peter G. Angelos and developer David Hillman are challenging in court the legality of the city's development agreement with a New York outfit, a move that further complicates a process already tortured and incredibly overdue. It's time for some mayoral shuttle diplomacy.

The city is embroiled now in three lawsuits over the future of the largest undeveloped tract in the renaissance of Baltimore's west side. The issues range from the Angelos-Hillman claim to the exclusion of small businesses to the extent of minority participation in the project. Because they challenge the very nature of the city's development process, it's likely these cases could end up at the state's highest court. And the Baltimore Development Corp., which is overseeing the project, has taken a drubbing from the court recently on how it conducts business.

Another key stakeholder in the west side, the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, wants to join the development rather than simply sell its parcels on the superblock to the city, which is prepared to take them through condemnation. The foundation is ready to fight any taking in court.

As these competing legal challenges proceed, the prospect of advancing the project seems more problematic by the day. The New York developer is due - finally - to submit its plans for the area March 31.

But Mayor Sheila Dixon should be ready to intervene and try to negotiate a compromise - and we do mean compromise - between some of these parties that would protect the city's interests and propel progress on development of the 3.6-acre parcel bounded by West Fayette, Howard, Lexington and Liberty streets. The goal would be to avoid a protracted legal fight on multiple fronts that could indefinitely delay development of this critical piece of the west side, a project at the center of controversy for seven years.

Mr. Angelos and Mr. Hillman, property owners in the area who filed the lawsuit jointly under their respective company names, want to end the city's development pact with Lexington Square Partners and rebid it. That would be a drastic move. But as tactics go, their lawsuit, which faults the BDC's lack of openness in the process (taking its cue from appellate rulings critical of the agency on that score) may prove a credible challenge that could scuttle the deal.

If the city and the Weinberg Foundation could reach an agreement on a land swap for the superblock properties - they've tried once before - it would push the project forward. That, coupled with a smart, stylish, comprehensive development scheme by the New York group, could end the controversy and restore some confidence that the project is indeed viable and under way.

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