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The Chesapeake saga -- from the Baltimore Sun archives

At sea re the Chesapeake saga. Me, too. I've been looking through the archives. This Ed Gunts article from 2003 was very, very helpful. Consider it exposition for the following eight years of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Please share your memories of the Chesapeake, too.

July 27, 2003

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Another revival for restaurant?

Edward Gunts


Can a venerable Baltimore restaurant make a comeback on its own after nearly 15 years of dormancy, or should the city intervene?

That's the question before the City Council, which is considering a bill that would authorize the city to condemn and acquire the former Chesapeake Restaurant at 1701-09 N. Charles St. and seek proposals for its redevelopment.The restaurant is one of 19 properties that could be acquired as part of an effort to enliven the area around the intersection of Charles Street and North Avenue. Other properties on the condemnation list include the Parkway Theater at 5 W. North Ave. and a row of commercial buildings in the 1900 block of North Charles Street.

The intersection is a key crossroads within the recently designated Station North Arts and Entertainment District. City officials say the properties identified for acquisition are either vacant, blighted or underutilized. If authorized to condemn and acquire the buildings, they say, they would use economic-development funds to buy them and offer them for sale to developers as a way to stimulate the area's rejuvenation.

The plan is part of a comprehensive strategy that also includes resurfacing North Avenue, replacing street lights and repaving sidewalks.

During a Planning Commission hearing on the proposed legislation this month, representatives for the restaurant, theater and commercial row all asked to have their properties deleted from the acquisition list.

They said they already have plans to fix up their properties and any move by the city to condemn them could scare away potential investors and tenants, causing the buildings to remain vacant even longer.

Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a local preservation consultant representing the Chesapeake Restaurant, said owner Robert Sapero has begun marketing the building aggressively.

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Noting that Sapero recently painted the exterior and repaired the restaurant's neon sign, she warned that prospective tenants could be reluctant to lease the building if they thought it might be acquired.

Getting a tenant is more difficult when a building is on a condemnation list, she said. "Just being on the list impugns the character of the facility ... . There's no other way to say it."

The restaurant is actually five 1890s brownstones combined to form one building. It has had several occupants over the years, including a restaurant known as Walker-Hasslinger's.

Baltimore businessman Morris Friedman opened a delicatessen on the property in 1918 and expanded it to a full-service dining facility, which was named the Chesapeake Restaurant in 1933, after Prohibition ended.

For more than five decades - but particularly before Harborplace was completed in 1980 and a wave of themed restaurants opened downtown - the Chesapeake was one of a select group of white-tablecloth restaurants that drew patrons from around the region for Sunday dinner, power lunches and anniversary celebrations.

The Chesapeake closed after its owners, Philip and Donald Friedman, filed for bankruptcy-court protection in March 1986. Sapero, an attorney, acquired it at a foreclosure auction on Aug. 27, 1986, with a bid of $341,000. All of the furniture and kitchen equipment came with the building and are still inside.

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In 1987, Sapero leased the building to a family that reopened it, keeping the Chesapeake name. But the restaurant closed within two years; the building has been inactive ever since.

City officials say they have been watching to see if Sapero would find a tenant on his own, but none has emerged, so the city is prepared to intervene. "The role of the city is to step in and take a risk where the private sector has failed to respond," Baltimore Development Corp. president M. Jay Brodie told the Planning Commission.

The development corporation, a quasi-public agency, is overseeing redevelopment efforts around Charles Street and North Avenue for the city.

Shapiro said Sapero's efforts to find a restaurateur have been hampered until recently by bridge-reconstruction work that closed part of Charles Street for the past three years. In addition, she said, the city for some time was considering plans to move the Greyhound bus terminal to the next block - a potential turnoff to operators of an upscale restaurant.

But now that the bridge construction is complete, the bus station plan has been withdrawn and the area has been designated an arts district, Shapiro said, the time is right to market the building and the owner is doing so.

"Everything's coming together," she said. "Five years ago wasn't the time. Ten years ago wasn't the time. Now is the time. A lot of people are looking at it."

Sapero said he is looking for an experienced operator who can run a first-class restaurant that will complement other attractions in the area.

"This is one of the few classics in Baltimore," he said. "It's a beautiful building. There are thousands of people who know of and still are interested in the Chesapeake. I want something excellent to be there."

Owners of the other targeted properties say they are moving ahead with renovation plans as well.

Baltimore businessman Charles Dodson said he purchased the Parkway Theater and an adjacent building last fall and is working with Ziger Snead Architects. He envisions restoring the auditorium as a setting for jazz and classical-music performances, lectures and other cultural events.

Clayton Kim has prepared a 12-page report outlining plans to fix up the buildings in the 1900 block of North Charles Street, including restoring the old Gold- bloom property to its original appearance.

Brodie said his agency would be pleased if the current owners would upgrade their buildings and the city would not have to begin condemnation proceedings. But he said planners want to hear more than promises. He said they want to see evidence of financing and a firm timetable for carrying out the work.

"We want it to be exciting and real," he said.

Brodie explained that while the City Council bill gives the city authorization to acquire the properties, it doesn't obligate the city to buy any of them. If the current owners can assure his agency that they are moving ahead with projects that are consistent with the city's plans for the surrounding area, he said, their buildings could be taken off the acquisition list.

Because it will take several months before the bill can be made law, the owners have time to refine their plans and show the development agency that acquisition isn't necessary, said Planning Commission chairman Peter Auchincloss.

He said he expects to see "three exciting plans" for the Station North area in the near future. If they don't materialize, he said, the city's acquisition plan "is there for all the right reasons."

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