West-side project revived

Land swap will restart stalled `superblock' effort

March 28, 2007|By Lorraine Mirabella and Meredith Cohn | Lorraine Mirabella and Meredith Cohn,sun reporters

Baltimore officials and one of the city's biggest charities have reached an agreement that will enable the long-stalled redevelopment of a blighted swath of downtown's west side to move forward.

The agreement, to be announced today at a news conference by Mayor Sheila Dixon, calls for a land swap that will allow the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and Baltimore-based Cordish Co. to develop part of the area in the city's old retail district known as the "superblock," according to some of the parties involved.

It also heads off a looming court fight between one of Baltimore's most powerful and influential institutions and the city, which had been moving to condemn the disputed properties. With $2 billion in assets, the Weinberg Foundation is a major benefactor in the area, with its founders' names on dozens of buildings including a YMCA and a cancer institute.

"We know all about the settlement and are extremely pleased with the resolution," David Cordish, Cordish Co. president and chairman, said yesterday. "It is a true win-win-win. The main winner is the city of Baltimore and the citizens, which will be able to reap the benefits in the short term of a revitalized superblock area. The Weinberg Foundation and the Cordish Co. have a major development role in the superblock, which we are looking forward to."

Officials from the city and the Weinberg Foundation declined to comment yesterday on details of the agreement, though Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie confirmed that an agreement had been reached.

"That's all I can confirm," Brodie said.

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for the mayor, declined to comment.

"We're not going to make any comment before tomorrow's press event," McCarthy said yesterday.

The mayor was to appear with foundation President Shale D. Stiller and city development officials to unveil the plan. Stiller could not be reached yesterday, and Joel Winegarden, the Weinberg Foundation's vice president for real estate, declined to comment.

The superblock is the largest redevelopment site on the west side and is considered the linchpin for bringing residents, shops and businesses to a deteriorated stretch between Charles Center to the east and the University of Maryland complex to the west.

A spokesman for Lexington Square Partners LLC, a development team headed by Chera Feil Goldman Group of New York that was selected two years ago to revitalize the area, said the agreement clears the way for the team to proceed. It plans to develop 400 to 500 market rate apartments, 200,000 square feet of retail space and parking.

S. Jerome Hagley III, executive vice president of the Harold Dawson Co., a member of the development team and a spokesman for Lexington Square, said the city and the foundation agreed to swap land, giving the city title to parcels needed for the superblock redevelopment and giving the foundation property for its own development with the Cordish Co.

The city's Board of Estimates approved an agreement in January to sell 37 properties - more than half owned by the foundation - on 3.6 acres bounded by West Fayette, Howard, Lexington and Liberty streets and Park Avenue to Lexington Square for $21.6 million.

Hagley said yesterday the developers are working through a schematic design in hopes of submitting it to the BDC Friday.

"It's a very positive step," Hagley said. "We're excited they reached an agreement on a land swap and how they're going to divvy up the parcels on the west side. ... We're looking forward to taking title by the end of the year and getting started.

"Whatever their agreement, we're happy the city and the Weinberg Foundation have come to an agreement. We look forward to collaborating with the Weinbergs ... so we can coordinate their plans for the west side with our plans for the west side. We'll be neighbors over there.

While details of the land swap were not released yesterday, the agreement may resurrect all or parts of an earlier land swap agreement between the city and the foundation.

Stiller has said that the Weinberg Foundation had accepted a BDC proposal that the foundation exchange its properties on the south side of Lexington Street for properties being acquired by the city on the north side of Lexington Street. That was the reason, Stiller has said, that the foundation did not originally submit a bid in October 2003 to redevelop the superblock. But after the city's deadline for bids from potential superblock developers had passed, the city in mid-2004 notified the foundation it could not deliver on the land swap.

Since then, the foundation refused to sell the properties and last July proposed to develop along with Cordish Co. a mix of housing, offices and shops totaling more than 2 million square feet.

Business leaders, including the Downtown Partnership, had been pushing the two sides for a quick resolution.

"The New York team and Weinberg team seem to be heading in the direction they intended," said Kirby Fowler, president of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership, who said he had not seen the agreement but understood it involved a land swap. "It's imperative that there is progress on the superblock and this agreement is a step in the right direction."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Meredith.Cohn@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Stacey Hirsh contributed to this article.

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