Nonprofit group asks city to give tax break for downtown project; Weinberg Foundation plans housing, stores


A nonprofit group proposing to build 345 apartments, dozens of stores, a multiscreen theater and parking garages on the west side of Baltimore's downtown wants tax breaks from the city to help pay for the project, according to details released yesterday.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation is also asking the city to reopen a pedestrian-only section of Lexington Street to traffic and remove dozens of lighted arches over Howard Street, according to the proposal.

City officials have not decided whether to approve the proposal. But the city's development agency gave the foundation exclusive rights last week to negotiate with the city over six blocks surrounding the former Stewart's department store building at Howard and Lexington streets.

"This is the first proposal to get to this stage on the west side of downtown, and we think it will create momentum for the most important redevelopment effort in the city since the Inner Harbor," said Roger Lipitz, chairman of the Baltimore Development Corp. board.

The Weinberg Foundation owns almost half of the buildings in the area and was the only development group to respond in May to Baltimore Development Corp.'s request for proposals to build on the site.

The area between Clay, Fayette, Liberty and Howard streets is the first part of an 18-block section of the west side that the city hopes to revitalize by condemning and demolishing dozens of rundown stores and building hundreds of apartments and businesses.

The Democratic and Republican candidates for mayor said yesterday that they will study the proposal for granting tax breaks and reopening Lexington Street.

Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee and a former city councilman, said he has supported tax breaks or payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) for development projects that he felt would provide jobs and economic growth for the city.

But he added he is not a "rubber stamp" for tax breaks.

"These really need to be examined on a deal-by-deal basis to see if they are good for the citizens of Baltimore," O'Malley said. "The operating question is: Can it be built without tax incentives? We will need to look at it."

David F. Tufaro, the Republican nominee and a developer, said he does not know enough about the Weinberg Foundation's proposal for a tax break to take a position on it. But he said he is "very concerned" about preserving architecturally significant buildings in the area.

The foundation's proposal is to preserve and renovate a store with an art deco front at 215-219 W. Lexington St., a building with a cast-iron facade at 117-121 N. Howard St., and several other buildings.

The organization plans to work with Grid Properties Inc. of New York City to spend $123 million by 2003 building a "first-class retail and entertainment complex" that would include a multiscreen theater, 234,000 square feet of stores, 140,000 square feet of offices and 960 parking spaces in two garages, according to the foundation's May 19 proposal released yesterday.

The foundation also wants to convert the former Stewart's store on Howard Street into a telemarketing center or high-tech offices and create a park with fountains at Park Avenue and Liberty Street.

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