Seawall Development Corp., a force in Remington as a builder of affordable teacher housing and a rehabber of abandoned row houses, has signed a contract to purchase an 11-acre site where an ill-fated shopping center with a Wal-Mart store was planned.
Anderson Automotive Group President Bruce Mortimer said Thursday that he is selling to Seawall the six properties his family owns in the area of 25th and Howard streets.
"We've signed an agreement" with Seawall partners Thibault Manekin and Evan Morville, Mortimer said.
Mortimer earlier this year pulled the plug on a deal with developer Rick Walker to turn three of the six properties into 25th Street Station, a controversial shopping center approved by the city that would have been anchored by a Wal-Mart. Mortimer terminated that sale in October 2012. Mortimer now has a legal complaint pending against WV Urban Developments, a team headed by Walker, claiming that Walker missed a Sept. 30, 2012 deadline to complete a purchase agreement with Walmart Real Estate Business Trust, in which Walmart would commit to purchasing a portion of properties on the site.
The lawsuit asks a Baltimore Circuit Court judge to rule that the termination of the sale was legal, so that Mortimer won't have a clouded title.
Jon Laria, a Baltimore attorney for WV Urban Developments, said the company has a valid contract with Mortimer and has retained the noted attorney Arnold Weiner to defend its position in court.
"It's truly unfortunate that a good developer has been put in this position and that Seawall is now putting itself in the middle of this, but WV can't possibly walk away from $5 million and four years of sweat and blood on a project with such broad support from the city and community," Laria said.
Seawall has agreed to buy all of the six Mortimer properties, but has not decided what to do with them and could ultimately have four to five different projects, said Morville.
Morville said at least one of the projects would be a mixture of residential, retail and commercial, though not necessarily a traditional shopping center.
"There will be retail absolutely involved in one of those six properties," Morville said. But he added that a mixed-use development is only one of a handful of projects Seawall is considering.
"You're no longer looking at that one corner" of 25th and Howard, Morville said. "It's an opportunity to develop six properties in Remington. We'll consider all options."
He stressed that whatever Seawall does, the company will "keep it urban," and won't build "a cheesy suburban" shopping center. However, he did not rule out a shopping center or Wal-Mart as an anchor, and said, "We certainly will have conversations with Wal-Mart."
"This is not Rick Walker 2.0," Mortimer said. "This is a whole different plan. It's a clean sheet of paper."
Mortimer said that when he told community leaders in Remington, Charles Village and Old Goucher in March that he had filed suit against Walker, he asked them if they wanted to recommend a potential buyer.
"I had no idea they would tell me Seawall, but everybody did," he said. "It was like a lovefest."
Mortimer has moved his family's Anderson Honda dealership to Hunt Valley, but retains a paint shop and several body shops in the Remington area, as well as a used car lot. He said he might consolidate the body shops and might be willing to move to a different location, depending on Seawall's plans. The sites that Seawall is buying are a body shop at 115 West 25th St.; a paint shop at 2520 North Howard St.; a former Anderson service location at 2507 North Howard; the old Honda showroom at 204 Ware St.; and another body shop at 301 West 29th St.
"I want to be in the body shop business" in Remington, Mortimer said.
He said he will leave the plans for the sale properties up to Seawall, with community input, but will get involved if they want him to be.
He praised Seawall as "a catalyst for change."
""I know it's in good hands," he said. "I just want to be involved to the extent that they want me to be involved. I think the community likes me."
For Seawall, developing the six properties represents another step in reclaiming Remington from urban blight. Already, Seawall has redeveloped the old U.S. Census building at 26th and Howard as Miller's Court, which is also teacher housing and offices for nonprofits. Seawall has also purchased abandoned row houses in the area and is rehabbing them as future starter homes for its teacher tenants.
Seawall is also converting an old tire shop across the street from Miller's Court. Single Carrot Theatre will move into that building and Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen will open a butcher shop and restaurant there. Young Audiences of Maryland also plans to move there.
"Five years ago, Remington didn't look like it does today," Morville said. "Five years from now, it's not going to look like it does today."
Mortimer said he informed city officials about Sewall earlier in the day, including Baltimore City Council president Bernard C. Jack Young and council members Carl Stokes and Mary Pat Clarke.
Mortimer told community leaders in Charles Village, Remington and Old Goucher at a meeting Thursday evening.
John Viles, who attended the meeting with community leaders Thursday evening as a representative of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, said he was heartened by the announcement about Seawall.
"i'm really positive about it," Viles said. Now we have to start over (with a new developer), but I think these guys have a good attitude."
Judith Kunst, president of the Greater Remington Improvement Association, said she likes Seawall too, but worries about Seawall buying properties that could be in litigation for a long time.
"Í think it's important that we wait and see what happens," Kunst said.
Morville said that once Mortimer's lawsuit is resolved, "we'll be ready to rock. But the process could take awhile."
Councilwoman Clarke, who attended the meeting with community leaders and was briefed by Mortimer earlier in the day, said the news was "very promising."
"These are developers who, working with the community, have begun to transform Remington in ways that the community wants it transformed, keeping its character but fixing old buildings and understanding (the importance of) affordability. I was very surprised, but I'm pleased."
Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association and a longtime critic of Wal-Mart and 25th Street Station, also reacted positively to the announcement.
"Ha-ha, we won," said Ray, who did not attend the meeting. He has long argued that the 25th Street Station project would be too large for the area. Ray co-filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to appeal the City Council's decision to grant zoning approval for the shopping center. But the Maryland courts found that they did not live close enough to the site to file such an appeal.
"With Seawall's reputation, I feel confident they will do a development that fits the size and the scope of the neighborhood," Ray said. "They have a sterling reputation and it's an excellent opportunity to connect Charles Village, Remington, Hampden and Station North all together into one logical, cohesive corridor."