A month after the developer planning to redevelop Cross Street Market in Federal Hill said it would walk away from the deal with the city, the firm is back at the table.
Caves Valley Partners said last month it would not move forward with the project, which had drawn outcry from existing merchants and divided people in the neighborhood.
But leaders of the Towson-based development company said Tuesday they are looking at ways to revive the deal. Despite its announcement in February, the firm did not terminate its agreement with the city on March 1 as planned, and the property manager it hired remains in control of the building.
The decision to end the project at a time when the city is trying to revitalize all of its old public markets came as a surprise to many stakeholders. Even some critics of Caves Valley's plan expressed dismay that improvements to the market might not move forward at all.
Caves Valley partner Arsh Mirmiran said he was serious about walking away, but emails and other support that surfaced after that decision prompted him to reconsider. A meeting with state lawmakers also reopened the possibility of winning General Assembly approval for the kind of liquor license the firm wanted for the market, said Arthur Adler, another partner.
"We didn't think that was a possibility," Adler said. "We now believe it's a possibility."
In an effort to address merchant complaints about rent increases and the potential disruption caused by a 10-month construction closure, the development firm's proposed "plan B" would keep the market open during the renovation. Caves Valley also would seek state funds for current tenants to use to build out their own spaces, allowing for more gradual rent increases.
To address neighborhood concerns about the liquor license it's seeking, the developer would agree not to host bar crawls as a condition of the license. It also would reopen negotiations with Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood, Mirmiran said. (Caves Valley previously sought to evict the restaurant.)
It's not clear if the new proposal has a shot at moving forward.
Robert Thomas, executive director of the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., the nonprofit charged by the city to run its markets, said he was aware that Caves Valley is looking at its options but is not involved in the talks.
"You have more info than I have at the moment," he wrote in an email.
Attorneys who represented the merchants and Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood said they also were not involved in the discussions. Attorney John C. Murphy said he intends to press city leaders to withdraw the lease with Caves Valley.
"Talk is cheap," he said. "We haven't seen anything yet."
Sen. Bill Ferguson, who met with Mirmiran after the previous plans collapsed, said he is willing to put forward legislation for a liquor license if a compromise with widespread community support emerges. He also said it's not clear at this point how much state money would be available for merchants.
Ferguson is one of the lawmakers who had crafted the draft liquor license bill previously rejected by Caves Valley, which imposed a high fee, limited hours and other restrictions in response to bar-weary neighbors.
"There will have to be a clear demand from the community that they want to see something moving," he said. "It's up to the operator and stakeholders to present a new idea that has greater buy-in."
Mirmiran, who sent an email to people Tuesday asking them to express support to lawmakers, said the proposed changes are meant to respond to the main objections to the previous plan, which had been in the works for more than three years.
Adler said the phased construction makes the work required to bring the building up to code more expensive and means a less ambitious overhaul of the interior layout. But it still could work, he said.
"We were trying to create a nationally recognized, transformative market," he said. "Instead we will create what we believe will be the best neighborhood market in Baltimore."
Anna Epsilantis, the owner of Big Jim's Deli, whose family has worked at Cross Street Market for three generations, said she is bewildered by what's going on.
"They're doing the same thing they did the first time," she said. "Instead of this backdoor ... stuff, why isn't the community and the merchants, why aren't we all being included in this?"
Rival petitions for and against Caves Valley's plans are circulating online and have drawn hundreds of signatures.
Jameson Chalmers, the president of the Otterbein Community Association, created a pro-redevelopment petition. He said he supports current tenants, but believes working with Caves Valley is the neighborhood's best option for any improvements to market in the near future.
"It's this way or it's going to fall off," he said.