Coffee Mill to close at Belvedere Square; City planning director urges meeting to discuss shopping center's future


Today is the last day of business for the Coffee Mill in Belvedere Square, a bitter end that husband-and-wife owners Rosemary and Tom Thompson did everything to avoid.

The Coffee Mill is the last of the original tenants of the North Baltimore shopping center, which opened behind the former Hochschild Kohn department store in 1986.

The Thompsons say the closing -- and that of nearly every other retailer and merchant who once did business at the square -- is symbolic of Baltimore's decline in the 1990s.

"This is a key corridor between east and west which is highly traveled," said Tom Thompson of the shop's strategic location near the corner of York Road and East Belvedere Avenue. "The city is letting it rot and go gray."

Added Rosemary Thompson: "It's a metaphor for Baltimore City. It was perfect chemistry in the beginning, an urban experience and setting."

The couple owns a second Coffee Mill, on Chestnut Avenue in Hampden, which continues to do brisk business.

Five years ago, Belvedere Square bustled with butchers, bakers, and vendors of fruit and flowers sharing stalls under one roof. So busy was the square that parking spaces were hard to come by.

Now it sits nearly empty. A bagel shop, a dry cleaners and photo lab are still open, across the street from a frame shop and Egyptian Pizza.

On Friday, city Planning Director Charles G. Graves III acknowledged that the situation was dire and urged everyone involved in the square's future -- particularly community members and developer James J. Ward III -- to meet as soon as possible.

Ward, 52, is a retail developer who lives in Florida. In May, he angered many area residents with a $35 million proposal that would require some homes to be acquired to make way for a series of brand-name retailers anchored by a 25,000-square-foot Old Navy clothing store.

Ward -- whose idea relies on an expansion of the nearby Senator Theater -- claims that about 16 homeowners have expressed a willingness to sell.

Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator, which is across York Road from Belvedere Square, said that community consensus clearly shows that "demolishing a slew of homes on Orkney Road for big-box retail is not acceptable."

Ward responded: "They want the old days back. So does everybody. Mayberry is not there anymore."

Other components of Ward's plan include a Friendly's Restaurant, a Rite-Aid drugstore, a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop and a supermarket.

David Goldstein, 44, an attorney who chairs the Belvedere Square Action Group, said his organization is willing to talk with Ward. Goldstein said the group expected Ward to come back with alternatives to the "big box" approach, but that hasn't happened.

The attorney said that before neighbors can discuss with Ward architectural planning for the site -- an idea endorsed by Graves and Ward -- the community needs more time and money to plan.

Said Goldstein: "I live [on Orkney Road] because I like my neighbors. I'm not selling and my neighbors aren't selling."

Many merchants have left Belvedere Square saying that rents were too high and that Ward, who owns the development, did not live up to contractual obligations. Last year, a $1.8 million urban development loan that Ward received to launch the shopping center was forgiven by the city.

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