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City tries fresh effort in Old Town

The city is seeking development ideas for a 16-acre group of properties close to Old Town Mall, an East Baltimore shopping strip that has struggled despite being the target of revitalization efforts for more than 40 years.

The request for proposals, expected to be released Thursday, involves two city-owned parcels, a 7.5-acre triangle at the corner of Ensor and Orleans Streets and the roughly 8.7-acre former site of the Somerset Homes, a public housing complex that was torn down in 2009. The addition of housing authority land expands the area included in earlier efforts to make the site more appealing to developers.

The properties surround an open-air pedestrian mall remade in 1976 with urban renewal funding after the shops there were damaged in rioting following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr in 1968.

Many of the 19th-century buildings were looted again during a 1979 blizzard. Hurt by an influx of drugs and crime in the 1980s and further deprived of customers after the demolition of public housing high-rises in 1995, many stand crumbling and vacant, a world apart from the gleaming Johns Hopkins Hospital towers a few blocks east.

The Baltimore Development Corp. last awarded development rights for the 7.5-acre portion of the property in 2005 — about 25 properties and part of the pedestrian mall — to a development team that included Continental Realty Corp., A&R Companies Inc. and Big Mac Properties. But that agreement expired in 2012.

Officials said they hope the improving economy will ensure that the latest redevelopment effort takes hold.

"Timing is important. I don't want to say it's everything, but it's certainly important," BDC President Brenda McKenzie said. "A lot has changed in the market since 2005, and we want to take advantage of the growth that Baltimore is now enjoying and have some of that take place in the neighborhood."

The city has been trying to locate a supermarket in the area for years, with prospective tenants proving unwilling to commit. McKenzie said the city is interested in a grocery store but will be receptive to ideas from developers and is "keeping options open."

"We're looking for a vibrant, mixed-use, community-oriented development," she said.

Continental Realty President Gene Parker said the company pushed for the city to expand the size of the site as a way to open up more development possibilities. Since 2005, Continental has shifted its focus from development, one of the reasons it parted ways with the city on the project, he said.

The firm remains a landowner in the area, with control of the 96-unit Forrest Street apartments, located between the two parcels.

"We remain very interested in the success of Old Town. We always intended to do everything we could to make a difference in the area," Parker wrote in an email. " Ultimately both we and the city came to the conclusion that the project was going to take considerably more time and money than anyone had anticipated."

East Baltimore Community Corp. President Marie Washington said she hopes the addition of the Somerset Homes property will make the site more appealing to developers, giving them a shot at a large-scale transformation.

She said she does not expect a big-box supermarket to locate on the site, but she hopes to see shops such as dry cleaning, a pharmacy and a smaller grocery store. "This is something we need in our community," she said.

A master plan for the area, completed in 2010, recommended a mix of low-income and market rate housing on the former Somerset Homes parcel, and a mix of residential units and retail on the other property, where the Belair Market was razed in 2002, about six years after it closed. The plan also suggested removing the elevated portion of the Jones Falls Expressway to help connect the area with the downtown, reviving an idea from the 1990s.

Developers can bid on the two Old Town parcels together or separately, with preference given to proposals that include both, McKenzie said. Some of the properties on the pedestrian mall remain privately owned.

"We hope that it will bring vitality to the mall by encouraging a large-scale development nearby," she said. "In trying to encourage retail or commercial development … it's good to have a general mass."

nsherman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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