A small, vacant lot near Belvedere Square is causing a big stir as Baltimore City prepares to sell it after backing out of a previous sale.
The vacant lot, located at 431 Hutchins Ave., was the subject of a bidding war last year between a church, which wanted a bigger community garden, and a neighborhood bar, which wanted more parking.
The city Housing Department, which owns the lot, awarded it to Pergusa Enterprises, doing business as Jerry's Belvedere Tavern, 5928 York Road. Pergusa outbid Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, 430 E. Belvedere Ave., said Cheron Porter, Housing Department spokeswoman.
But the city rescinded the award after Pergusa tried to amend the terms to allow housing on the lot.
"The amended award letter struck an agreed-upon restriction against residential and inserted instead a restriction to apply only to single-family residential use," Porter said in an e-mail Oct. 5. "This did not reconcile either with the original stated proposed use or the agreed upon terms."
Pleasant Hope first applied last summer to buy the lot for $5,000, while Pergusa offered only $2,000, Porter said.
But Pergusa early this year upped its offer to $10,000, higher than the city's appraised value of $9,900, Porter said. She said the city then gave Pleasant Hope a chance to raise its offer.
"The church was notified but did not respond timely," Porter said. She said the city also advised the church that green space was not a preferred use for the commercially zoned lot.
The city, which had appraised the property at $9,900, awarded the lot to Pergusa and sent a rejection letter to Pleasant Hope.
But the letter had barely gone out when Pleasant Hope tried to amend its application to buy the property for $10,700, Porter said.
In early February, Pergusa officially agreed to buy the lot. But Pergusa then tried to make changes in the proposed use of the land, Porter said.
She said that on Feb. 15, the city rescinded the awarding of the property to Pergusa, "due to substantial changes in the proposed use," according to a certified letter she said the city sent Pergusa.
David Rugolo, co-owner of Jerry's Belvedere Tavern, would not comment.
Now, the city is scheduling a public sale.
"We thought the most objective thing to do was to put the property up for auction," Porter said.
For the church, the process has left a bad taste.
"We've been haggling with the city for the property for the past two years," said Pastor Heber Brown III. "Others jumped into the fray. Our concern is that this process has not been open and clear and straightforward."
Brown said church leaders have "the sense is that there are deep pockets in this city with their own plans" for the property, and that other area businesses might also be eyeing the lot for use.
Brown and other church leaders complained to City Councilman Bill Henry and State Sen. Joan Carter Conway during a community resource fair that Henry sponsored late last month.
"I feel better in the sense that it's on the community's radar now," Brown said afterward. "We expect to be involved in the (sale) process. We deserve to have a voice in this conversation."
Henry said some of the church's displeasure is directed at him, because they think city officials are trying to steer the lot to Pergusa to keep it on the tax rolls, rather than having a community garden there.
"They seemed to be under the impression that the city was cutting some sort of private development deal," he said.
But Henry said he is trying to stay out of the issue and church leaders have misinterpreted that as "passive work" on behalf of Pergusa.
He said having a community garden would be appealing to the city from a stormwater management perspective. On the other hand, Pergusa would be using it for business purposes and paying city property taxes, whereas the church wouldn't, Henry said.
But Henry and Conway during the fair discussed another possibility — that the church could lease the lot from the city for 10 years and the city could wrap the property taxes into the rent, thereby keeping the lot on the tax rolls.
"It can be worked out," Henry told Conway.