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Concern grows about Belvedere Square’s future as North Baltimore neighborhood anchor

After a couple of popular merchants left Belvedere Square and its owner put the North Baltimore center up for sale, some nearby residents are growing concerned about the future of what has long been a neighborhood hangout for shopping, dining and gathering.

They are worried about the uncertainty that comes with vacant storefronts and a potential new owner. But owner War Horse Cities called the turnover typical and said it has signed leases with three new tenants who will open businesses this fall, adding to several others it has brought in over the past year.

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In recent social media posts, area residents and longtime patrons have lamented the loss of tenants such as Ceriello Fine Foods, an Italian market, and Ryan’s Daughter restaurant and expressed concern about others possibly leaving. The mixed-use retail and office center at the southeast corner of York Road and Northern Parkway has been on the market since April.

"Every time we have a person move out or a change of ownership, it makes us nervous,” said Ned Atwater, whose market stall evolved from a bakery and soup bar in 2003 into a restaurant today. His business has seen a slight decline in sales and volume over the past couple of years, he said.

Angela Tsetsis, a regular at the market, said she became alarmed to see tenants leave and hear that others could be in trouble. She and others also are concerned to see chains such as Subway join the lineup of local shops.

“Having lived in the neighborhood 25 years now, when I moved in, the market was empty and dead, and when it came back to life, it was such a lovely place, very inviting and a nice place to get people together to meet," said Tsetsis, a Homeland resident who often goes to the Lynne Brick’s gym at Belvedere, then meets friends at the market. “It was more of a market per se than a food hall.”

Now, she said, “I have just seen that sometimes things aren’t as taken care of as they used to be... There’s enough of a population around the market that it should be thriving.”

Tenants who opted not to renew leases may have seen rent increases outpace sales growth, Atwater suggested. The market also must contend with more competition from other neighborhoods’ food hall-style markets and tougher times for independent retailers vying with discounters and the internet.

“We used to get a lot of customers from Hampden or Remington, for soup or ramen or sushi, but now there are places in their neighborhoods that are closer,” Atwater said.

Tsetsis has been trying to drum up community support for the market through the NextDoor website, hoping to spark talk about ways to reinvigorate the square. She and others have floated ideas such as a beer garden on an unused patio, artists studios in empty spaces, a weekly farmers market or local pop-up shops.

But others say business is good, and the owner has been attentive to a market that’s typically bustling.

“I’m doing great," said Fionnuala Fox, who opened the Love That gift shop three years ago in the row of shops next to the market. Center managers have been “thoughtful about what they put in here. They take good care of making sure the place looks good. They are doing everything they can to make it work.”

War Horse said the center offers a “vibrant, diverse” mix of shops, restaurants and offices, along with the market. The development firm, headed by Scott Plank, a former Under Armour executive and brother of the sports brand’s founder and CEO Kevin Plank, said in April it was selling Belvedere Square in order to focus on other projects. The company bought the center nearly seven years ago.

“As with any large mixed-use property, occupancy will fluctuate as market conditions create opportunities and challenges," War Horse said in a statement.

In the last year, the landlord has brought in Choice One Urgent Care, in the former Ryan’s Daughter space; Baltimore Bike Works, in a retail strip across the street from the market space; and The Pizza Trust, a vendor in the market.

“Management continues to pursue other pending deals, which will be disclosed at the appropriate time,” the owner’s statement said. “War Horse is very appreciative of the sustained support and interest in this special asset from the community.”

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The center’s Summer Sounds concert series, which returned this summer, draws on average 5,000 patrons each Friday night, the company said.

On a recent weekday, patrons filled most of the market’s indoor tables while others braved a heat wave to eat outdoors, choosing from such vendors as Neopol Savory Smokery, Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls, Hex Ferments, Ejji Ramen and others.

Noreen Simpson read newspapers while eating lunch at Atwater’s, as she has often over the past 15 years.

“It’s very comfortable, and the food is good,” said Simpson, a retired teacher who lives in Tuscany-Canterbury. “My grandchildren love to come here. It’s family oriented.”

The center has had its ups and downs over the years. Originally a Hochschild Kohn department store in 1948, the property was bought in the early 1980s by developer James Ward II and rebuilt into Belvedere Square, with tenants such as Pier One, Utz potato chips and Berger’s bakery.

The market portion, planned as an upscale version of Lexington Market, became the centerpiece of the new shopping and office complex that opened in 1986. Merchants sold fresh food and produce and gourmet products from stalls.

Paula Dobbe-Maher loved that initial mid-1980s market concept and became a loyal customer. But the market went into a tailspin by the mid-1990s with numerous vacancies. Years later, after many of the original merchants had left, Dobbe-Maher jumped at a chance to be part of the next redevelopment.

In early 2000, a team of four developers launched a $14 million overhaul of the market. They were Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., Williams Jackson Ewing Inc., Hawkins Development Group and Manekin LLC.

The city and state contributed $4 million. A revitalized market opened in April 2003, with a bakery, a gourmet-to-go stall, produce, coffee, a smokery, a seafood stand, sushi and Dobbe-Maher’s upscale florist, Dutch Floral Garden. The square included a mix of local shops as well, selling stationary, clothing and furniture.

Dobbe-Maher said her flower shop, which also sells pottery, handbags and greeting cards, has felt the impact of Ceriello’s closing in mid-April after it helped anchor the market for more than a decade.

Andy Ceriello, owner of the New York-based Italian chain, told The Baltimore Sun in March that the business decided not to renew once the lease ended, saying only, "It’s time to move on. The store got old.”

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Customers often would buy food for parties at the Italian market then stop in for flowers, and that lost business has hurt Dutch Floral’s sales. Dobbe-Maher sees the large unused outdoor plaza as a lost opportunity for the center and would like to see it transformed into an inviting gathering spot.

“The soul is gone,” Dobbe-Maher said. “My business definitely is not growing.”

Atwater said that though he, too, is concerned, he feels optimistic about the market’s future, “primarily because the neighborhood is so great and they really support it,” he said. "I see some customers several times a week, week in and week out.”

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