City officials say Royal Farms eyeing downtown Annapolis

The latest debate over downtown Annapolis could come with a serving of fried chicken and a side of Western fries.

City planning officials said this week that Royal Farms has expressed interest in moving into the former home of Stevens Hardware, at 142 Dock St. overlooking City Dock.

A Royal Farms spokesman said he couldn't confirm the company's interest, saying the company's director of real estate was out of the office. But Jon Arason, Annapolis planning director, said the company approached the city about the Stevens building about two months ago.

Bill Greenfield of Hyatt Commercial, leasing agent for the Stevens building, said he's fielded numerous calls from businesses interested in the property, which he called a "significant building on a high-profile corner."

He confirmed he has a tenant with a signed lease but wouldn't say who it is.

"I cannot disclose who the tenant is. It is a good tenant. Until we have approval, there's not much we can say right now," he said.

Arason said Royal Farms has sought to convince city officials that the store could be a delicatessen — not a convenience store, which is prohibited under the zoning designation where the building stands.

No formal applications have been filed with the city, but Arason said officials for Royal Farms have been trying to convince planners that a store could fit in the zone, called C2 Conservation Business District. That zoning allows for a variety of businesses — antiques stores, bakeries, coffee shops, hotels and offices among them — but not convenience stores, according to city code.

"If they're a convenience store, they can't even apply," Arason said.

Delicatessens, however, are allowed in the C2 zone, though the operator would need the city's Board of Appeals to approve a special exception, and certain rules would apply.

Arason said that as part of preliminary considerations, city employees have visited a Royal Farms store in College Park and plan to visit a Royal Farms in downtown Baltimore. The downtown Baltimore store, at Lombard and Light streets, includes a counter along the front windows with bar stool seating where customers drink their morning coffee and eat lunch. It's in a building that formerly was home to Burke's Restaurant from 1934 until 2010.

Alderman Joe Budge, who represents Annapolis' downtown area, said he's been considering whether Royal Farms would be a good fit ever since he heard from Arason that the company was interested in the Stevens building.

Budge said he has a hard time envisioning a Royal Farms that would not be a convenience store. But if the company can come up with a concept that works within the zoning restrictions, Budge said, Royal Farms has every right to apply.

That said, Royal Farms doesn't quite fit with the image of downtown Annapolis as an area filled with unusual shops and restaurants that attract both residents and tourists, said Budge, a Democrat.

"In downtown Annapolis, we would like to see stores that have some degree of distinction from your average run-of-the-mill chain store or mall store," he said. "Nobody is going to come to downtown Annapolis to see a Royal Farms when there are Royal Farms all over the place."

The downtown commercial area has a handful of chain businesses, including CVS, Jimmy John's and Subway on Main Street and Moe's Southwest Grill on Dock Street.

Royal Farms is headquartered in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood and has 153 stores in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania, including one over the Spa Creek Bridge from downtown Annapolis in the Eastport neighborhood.

Lara Fritts, CEO of the Annapolis Economic Development Corp., said she's been working with a potential tenant for the Stevens Hardware building but also declined to name the business.

Greenfield said he's fielded numerous inquiries from potential tenants — and from people who want to buy the building. But he said the Stevens family, which operated a hardware store in the historic building from 1934 until 2012, is not interested in selling.

The family closed Stevens Hardware in December after a 53-year-run at the corner of Dock and Randall streets, across the street from the Annapolis waterfront. The Maryland Historical Trust describes the Stevens building as "Victorian commercial," and said it was built circa 1880. The building is assessed for tax purposes at $1.42 million.

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