Towering vision for west side

Plans are shown for retail shops, apartment towers

April 12, 2007|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun reporter

More than two years after being chosen to transform the heart of downtown Baltimore's old retail district into a revitalized urban neighborhood, developers unveiled yesterday the first detailed plans for a three-block area of the superblock showing two apartment towers as tall as 14 stories and a mix of local and national retailers.

Lexington Square Partners LLC plans a $250 million mixed-use project with 400 one- and two-bedroom apartments, 900 parking spaces and 300,000 square feet of retail with small shops lining the street and destination retailers on two upper stories along Fayette, Howard, Lexington and Liberty streets on Baltimore's west side.

During a news event with Mayor Sheila Dixon yesterday at City Hall, the developers said they are talking with national chains and plan to market the project at next month's International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas. Developers, who have no commitments yet from retailers, envision anchoring the project with chains such as Circuit City or Best Buy, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Victoria's Secret and H&M.

"This represents a bold and new statement for the west side," that would include both small merchants who hung on as the area deteriorated and national chains, Dixon said.

The blighted swath of downtown is the largest redevelopment site on the west side and 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.

"We hope to re-create the retail that the area used to be," said John Smallwood, vice president of development for BLDG Management Co. Inc., a New York-based real estate investment company headed by Lloyd Goldman.

BLDG is one of the partner companies in Lexington Square, along with Next Generation Chera LLC, the Feil Organization and the Dawson Co. "We have a long road ahead and need the residents and businesses to get behind this vision," Smallwood said.

Plans, which still must undergo public scrutiny and city design review, show apartment towers at Fayette and Howard streets and at Lexington Street and Park Avenue, with cars able to enter a garage from Park Avenue. The garage would have a rooftop garden that would be accessible from the apartment towers.

Developers are hoping to take title on the land from the city by the end of the year, start construction early next year and complete the project within two to three years after that.

Since the city adopted an urban renewal plan for the west side in 1999, several large projects have spurred additional redevelopment, including the restored Hippodrome Theatre, the Centerpoint apartment and retail project and conversion of the former Stewart's department store into the world headquarters for Catholic Relief Services.

But the superblock, a stretch of six blocks, has languished. City efforts to acquire property dragged on. Stores were either relocated or closed. Lawsuits challenged the city's selection of a developer and right to acquire and sell property. And shoppers, finding fewer offerings, went elsewhere.

Area merchants, who have watched as various versions of redevelopment plans failed to materialize, are still waiting "with bittersweet anticipation," said Linda Frangioni, president of the Market Center Merchants Association, which represents 400 merchants in the shopping district around Lexington Market.

"We've been waiting so long for something to happen, getting our hopes up and having it fall through again," said Frangioni, whose Grandma's Candle Shop was relocated from West Baltimore Street to Saratoga Street to make way for redevelopment. "We want to see this happen."

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said the city and the developers were trying to work with existing small merchants. In one case, the BDC reversed its position this week and told Yon O. Park, owner of Modern Mode at 105 W. Lexington St., that she will be able to stay.

Last month, the city cleared a major hurdle that had stalled the project when it reached an agreement with the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation over Weinberg-owned properties included in the Lexington Square project. The two sides agreed to a land swap that will allow Weinberg and the Cordish Co. to redevelop a block on the north side of Lexington Street.

But other hurdles remain. The city must still acquire properties to turn over to both development teams and will probably be forced to use condemnation powers to do so.

It also faces several lawsuits. Several owners of property in the Lexington Square development area challenged the validity of BDC's selection of the developer in 2004 in a closed meeting. That case was sent back to Baltimore Circuit Court by the Maryland Court of Appeals and is set for trial July 30, said attorney John C. Murphy, who represents the property owners.

Another lawsuit against BDC has been filed by companies controlled by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos and developer David Hillman. That suit argues that the agreement between the city and Lexington Square Partners improperly included a key parcel not listed in the original bid package and inappropriately allows the developer to deduct nearly half of the $21.6 million purchase price for expenses such as demolition and environmental remediation.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, M. Albert Figinski , said yesterday that the city has until the end of the month to answer the complaint. He said he has not seen the Lexington Square plans.

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