'Superblock' Foes Take Case To Appeals Court

Group Says City Should Look For New Downtown Proposals

December 04, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts , ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Opponents of revitalization plans for West Baltimore's "Superblock" took their case to Maryland's highest court yesterday, arguing that a private group's plan to redevelop land near Howard and Lexington streets should be scrapped and the city should seek new proposals for the property.

M. Albert Figinski, an attorney representing the opponents, told Maryland's Court of Appeals that the plans by Lexington Square Partnership, the Superblock's developer, are not consistent with the preservation objectives spelled out in a Memorandum of Agreement signed by city officials in 2001, when they received state funding to restore the Hippodrome Theatre.

In oral arguments before the court, Figinski also questioned whether the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public agency that issued a request for proposals for the Superblock and has been working with the selected development team as it refines its plans, has legal authority to represent the city.

"I think the BDC is a rogue entity, acting without portfolio, and it's high time that they be relegated to the scrap heap of history," Figinski said after the court hearing.

The Superblock project is one of the largest developments ever planned for Baltimore's west side and is seen as a potential catalyst to the continued revitalization of downtown. It calls for new stores, housing and parking in an area bounded roughly by Lexington, Howard, Fayette and Liberty streets, a parcel assembled by the city.

Lexington Square was selected in 2006 to purchase the land from the city and carry out a multi-phase development. But no construction has begun, in part because the developers are waiting to know the outcome of the legal challenge to their selection. The suit was brought by 120 West Fayette Street LLLP, an entity associated with Orioles owner and attorney Peter G. Angelos, who owns property near the Superblock site. It names Baltimore City, Baltimore Development Corp. and Lexington Square as defendants.

In court documents, Angelos' group objects to Lexington Square's project because it wouldn't save certain buildings targeted for preservation in a 2001 agreement signed by city and state officials. It also objects to the BDC's role in drawing up the footprint for the development, seeking proposals and selecting a developer. It notes that the latest boundary for the Superblock parcel includes property not initially offered for redevelopment: the former Greyhound bus terminal on West Fayette Street.

Figinski, an attorney with the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, said the plaintiffs would like Maryland's highest court to require the city to seek new bids. Figinski argued that the city is setting a poor precedent by "outsourcing" to the BDC tasks that could be carried out by public agencies.

"If it can outsource its duties today to the BDC," he said of the city government, "it can outsource its duties tomorrow to somebody in Pakistan."

Three preservation organizations - the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Maryland and Baltimore Heritage - filed a brief in support of Angelos' group and sent representatives to the hearing. They argue that the 2001 agreement involving the Superblock site is a legal document that must be followed, not a guideline that can be ignored.

David E. Ralph, chief of litigation for Baltimore City, argued before the court that the BDC has full authority to work with Lexington Square because it was designated to do so by the mayor's office and the city's housing department. He said a pending land disposition agreement between the city and Lexington Square is valid because it was approved by the Board of Estimates, a five-member city panel that approves land sales.

The fact that members of the Board of Estimates took testimony about the Superblock project and discussed it in a public meeting shows that they are not a "rubber stamp" for the development agency, Ralph said. "The BDC doesn't have any oversight," he told the judges. "The city has control."

Ralph opened his remarks by asking the judges for an "expedited" decision. He said Lexington Square's agreement with the city allows the developers to back out of the land acquisition after December 31, 2009, if the property hasn't been sold to them by then, and the city doesn't want the uncertainty of a court case to be an impediment. If the developers back out of the project, Ralph told the judges, "it may never take place."

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the BDC's president, said he has no reason to think Lexington Square's partners would abandon the project, because they have invested "$2 million to $3 million" for preliminary work. At the same time, Brodie said, he doesn't want an unresolved court case to give them reason to walk away.

"We hope they don't," Brodie said. "We have confidence in them."

Court representatives said they do not know when the seven-member panel might issue a ruling.

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