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Council urges changes downtown Bill would condemn 127 lots on west side to spur redevelopment


Dreams of a $350 million renovation of the west side of downtown took a step toward reality yesterday when the City Council introduced legislation to condemn 127 properties.

City leaders hope that taking the properties will spur the greatest downtown business development since the Inner Harbor. Baltimore joins a list of communities across the nation that have increasingly begun using powers of eminent domain to encourage redevelopment.

Despite protests two weeks ago from downtown business owners who would lose their properties, the urban renewal legislation for an area city planners call Market Center arrived with little fanfare.

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III called the bill a major step in resuscitating an 18-block area of aging downtown shops -- bordered by Eutaw Street, Park Avenue, Baltimore Street and Saratoga Street -- that has been excluded from previous redevelopment efforts.

If completed, the redevelopment would link the Inner Harbor, $700 million in new building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the planned revitalization of Charles Center.

"This is all something that we hope will begin to accelerate the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown Baltimore beyond the harbor," Bell said. "This is a major undertaking tonight."

Through its nonprofit Baltimore Development Corp., the city has begun appraising the targeted properties. Two sections of the 18-block region are targeted for condemnation: the first block surrounding the east side of North Eutaw Street and a stretch of property from Howard Street to Liberty Street between Clay and Fayette streets.

The city is required by law to hire two independent appraisers to review the properties and offer the owners the highest estimated value. Although owners may appeal the offers, the city would retain the properties.

The use of eminent domain to spur redevelopment has swelled over the past decade across the nation. Cities undertake about 80 business projects a year involving condemnations, according the Council for Urban Economic Development in Washington.

Property owners in the condemned downtown sections have objected to the plans because half of the property is expected to end up in the hands of the Weinberg Foundation, a nonprofit agency with $1.2 billion in holdings.

The foundation uses the money to fund social services ranging from hospital expansions to homeless centers. The foundation said it plans to redevelop the property to help create up to 2,600 apartments and shops that will spur downtown pedestrian traffic and reinvigorate downtown.

In addition to condemnation, the council legislation would require property owners to meet upgraded architectural standards for downtown. Property owners would have two years after the adoption of the legislation to meet the codes.

The Eutaw Street region of condemnation is tied to the planned redevelopment of the Hippodrome Theater. Last year, the state granted $1.7 million for a feasibility study on turning the blighted and vacant facility at 12 N. Eutaw St. into a performing arts center.

Shops across the street from the theater are expected to be converted into apartments and shops while stores next to the theater will be used for dressing rooms.

The condemnation bill will go to the council's Intergovernmental and Urban Affairs Committee and the city Planning Commission for review before returning to the council for a vote.

In other action last night, the council gave preliminary approval to a revised tobacco tax bill that would charge wholesale cigar dealers 18 cents to 36 cents for each cigar sold in the city. The bill originally targeted tobacco shops and pipe and chewing tobacco but the businesses were cut from the measure after owners complained the tax would wipe them out.

State law prohibits local governments from imposing a tax on cigarettes, but the law does not apply to cigars and pipe and smokeless tobacco.

The measure was approved unanimously. A final vote is expected after the council returns from holiday recess next month.

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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