West-side facelift

With a big hurdle to redevelopment cleared, beleaguered old retail district could begin getting a new look next year

March 29, 2007|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore's traditional retail district could begin taking on a new shape by next year with an expanded superblock development that would inject hundreds of new residents, workers and shoppers in the long-moribund area of downtown.

After putting to rest a feud and looming legal fight that had stalled renewal plans, city officials, one of the city's biggest charities and area property owners said they can finally start rebuilding a deteriorating six-block area viewed as a critical link in the city's west-side revitalization.

City development officials and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding yesterday in which the city and the foundation will swap properties in the part of downtown's old retail district dubbed the "superblock."

The swap will enable Lexington Square Partners LLC, a development team headed by Chera Feil Goldman Group of New York, to proceed with a development of 400 to 500 market-rate apartments, 200,000 square feet of retail space and parking in an area bounded by Howard, West Lexington, Liberty and West Fayette streets.

The developers said they are working through a schematic design in hopes of submitting it to Baltimore Development Corp. tomorrow. The Weinberg-owned properties constitute more than half of the properties in the development area and had been the focus of a dispute between the foundation and the city, which had been moving to condemn the buildings.

In exchange for giving up its properties, the Weinberg Foundation will get properties north of Lexington Street for a development it plans with Baltimore-based Cordish Co.

Renewal on that block is expected to complement an adjacent foundation project, the conversion of the former Stewart's department store into Catholic Relief Services' world headquarters.

Cordish Co. envisions building a mixed-use tower with apartments, offices or both, with retail on the first level and parking above the shops, said David Cordish, president and chairman of Cordish Co.

In an e-mail yesterday, Cordish promised that the project would be "world-class and change the environment around it."

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

The success of the two projects and whether they will spur additional redevelopment on the west side depends on bringing in enough new residents, who would support retail shops and restaurants, said John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow for housing at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.

"That area is sort of a gap between some fairly decent neighborhoods, and filling in that hole for Baltimore will really solidify that whole downtown area," he said. "If you have people walking the streets and retail, it will also bring the crime rate down. That whole area is close enough to waterfront, it should be an attractive area."

Projects around the west side have spurred additional redevelopment, including the restored Hippodrome Theatre, the Centerpoint apartment and retail project, and the Weinberg Foundation's redevelopment of Stewart's.

But since the city first adopted an urban renewal plan for the west side in 1999, the six-block superblock area has languished as stores have closed and shoppers have gone elsewhere.

During a news conference and signing ceremony at City Hall yesterday, Weinberg Foundation President Shale D. Stiller credited Mayor Sheila Dixon with helping to resolve the standoff between the city and the foundation.

The turning point, he said, came during the unveiling of the Stewart's building, which had been refurbished for Catholic Relief Services.

After Stiller expressed the foundation's commitment to the superblock development, Dixon, who at the time was set to succeed Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley as mayor, approached him and said, "`Whatever I can do to help, you just call on me,' and that's what she's done," Stiller said. "What all of us want to do is move forward and get the superblock done and have the long travail of eight years come to an end."

At yesterday's event, Dixon called the land swap agreement a "key step in reaching our mutual goal of mixed-use development on the north and south side of Lexington and east of Howard."

Though the land-swap deal removes a big obstacle to redevelopment, hurdles remain.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said that because the city will get more property in the swap than the foundation will, the city must determine through appraisals and possibly arbitration over the next few months the amount to be paid to the foundation.

In January, the city approved an agreement to sell 37 properties, more than half of them 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.

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