Grocer battling bulldozer Church wants site for day care center


Son Chan Pak says the pastor of West Baltimore's Union Baptist Church treated him like a son for 14 years after he opened a grocery store near the church. Now the pastor is telling Mr. Pak to move out.

The church wants to use land occupied by Mr. Pak's store at 1205 Druid Hill Ave. to construct a $2.5 million building for its Head Start day care center.

The grocer says the project would bulldoze his livelihood.

The City Council is scheduled to hear the dispute tomorrow at a public hearing. The council is considering a bill that would allow the city to take Mr. Pak's building so it could be demolished to make room for the day care center expansion.

Mr. Pak, who owns the store with his wife, Kwi Yung Pak, said his family has worked hard to build a loyal clientele since opening the store in 1979. "I don't have big power; we're just working people," he said while standing between the two aisles of groceries in his G-A Food Market.

Mr. Pak said the church's pastor, the Rev. Vernon Dobson, had changed from friend and adviser to adversary. He said the minister has threatened to use political clout to close the store.

Mr. Dobson denied making threats. He told the planning commission that the city had a "prevailing interest" in making room for the day care center because the church needs a new facility to serve poor families.

"The city has a right to determine the use for that building," he said.

The day care center, the city's oldest in the Head Start program, now serves 250 children and is housed in a stone building next to the church. The federal government pays 80 percent of the costs of operating the center, and the church picks up the remaining costs. Children enrolled in the program come from the neighborhood, and parents pay nothing, the pastor said.

Church officials said the day care center has operated in makeshift quarters over the years and that the new building would provide space for more children. Mr. Dobson said he initially offered Mr. Pak $40,000 for the store, then raised the offer to $70,000.

Mr. Pak's son, David Pak, said there never was a $40,000 offer, that $70,000 is far too low, and that $250,000 would be a fair price.

Land records in Baltimore Circuit Court show that Son Chan Pak bought the building from a partnership of Korean businessmen for $29,541 on Dec. 15, 1983, four years after he began operating the store. Family members say, however, that they have documents proving that they paid more than $100,000 for the business.

The church's offer is off the table now that the council has intervened. If the legislation is passed, the Pak family might receive a price equal to the highest of two appraisals, and relocation expenses.

The planning commission approved the council bill to acquire the building, adding a provision that the city use its power to fully compensate the family.

The family wonders if the building's market value was reduced when the church demolished the two buildings it owned on each side of the store to make room for the new day care center. The G-A Food Market now sits isolated on Druid Hill,

with a blue canvas covering one side that was damaged during the demolition.

Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, an ex-officio member of the planning commission, sought to assure family members that he would "do everything in my power" to help them if the city acquires the property and the family is forced to move.

But David Pak fears that the help offered by city officials might not be enough to keep the family's business as prosperous as it has been since 1979. The church rejected an early proposal by the family to swap buildings -- the store owner would have moved into one of the now-demolished buildings to make way for the Head Start center.

Family members say they will have to start from scratch to gain new customers if the business is forced to move to another neighborhood. "I think we're at the mercy of the church," David Pak said, adding that it was inappropriate for the city to become involved in the dispute. "I feel uneasy, backed into a corner."

Meanwhile, both sides hope the community will come to their aid at tonight's hearing. The Pak family says 1,200 people from the area have signed a petition supporting its right to stay in the building, while the church believes the neighborhood will support the Head Start center to bring more services to children in the community.

David Pak said the family will go to court to try to prevent the city from taking over the property if the council passes the bill.

"I don't know what chance we have," he said, "but I think there are things called property rights in this country."

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