Belair Market merchants implored the Baltimore City Planning Commission yesterday to quash a proposal that would tear down part of one of the nation's oldest markets to make way for a large grocery store that merchants say will put them out of business.
But after nearly five hours of hearing opposition from the Belair Market merchants and support from other business owners in the Oldtown Mall and area residents, the commission approved the proposal, saying it would breathe new life into a decaying area of East Baltimore.
The action puts into place Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's urban renewal plans for the area -- which has decayed into a neighborhood beset by drugs, crime and slumping business at the market and other Oldtown Mall stores.
The proposal would raze the northern section of the two market buildings where about 10 vendors sell fresh meat, fish and vegetables. In its place would go a 15,000-square foot supermarket -- three times the size of the Belair Market. A drug store and bank also would be anchored to the store.
Though the remaining market building that houses about 20 merchants would stay, the vendors say residents will spend their dollars in the new supermarket.
"We can't compete," said Jae Ki Ryu, president of the Belair Market Merchants' Association. "We will be gone in seven months."
City officials disagree. City urban renewal planner Roy Adams told the commission that competition would be good for the market and surrounding businesses because it would increase foot traffic and bring in more customers.
Residents say they shop at Oldtown Mall in the 400 block of N. Gay St. despite its decay, because they have no transportation to go elsewhere.
People who attended the hearing, including the market merchants, want to see the area bolstered by new businesses. But mall store owners and residents say the proposed supermarket will be the area's savior.
"If this is not done, I'm going to have to get into the welfare line," said Mary Bursch, owner of Upward Way Church Supply store in Oldtown Mall.
Most of the market merchants who oppose the proposed supermarket are Koreans, and most of the mall business owners and residents who support it are African-Americans.
Korean merchants say they do not feel safe in the neighborhood. African-American store owners and residents say that the goods sold in the market are overpriced and sub-standard.
A preliminary vote on the proposed development is expected at next week's City Council meeting.
The mayor has in recent months attempted to change the way the city markets function. Three months ago, he privatized five of them -- Belair, Northeast, Cross Street, Hollins and Broadway. The sixth, Lafayette Market, is slated to become an African-American cultural center.