Grocery would replace plaza


A developer is proposing to build downtown Baltimore's first supermarket in place of a half-vacant Charles Street shopping plaza that was part of a landmark 1960's urban renewal project.

David Hillman, chairman of Virginia-based Southern Management Co., wants to demolish the failing Charles Plaza at Charles and Saratoga streets and replace it with a 40,000-square-foot Safeway.

Hillman said the project would help the city's efforts to transform downtown into a residential neighborhood.

It would also eliminate what some consider an eyesore: a blocky, mud-brown brick plaza built in 1968 with the futuristic, utilitarian feel of Soviet-era Eastern Germany.

"Charles Plaza was an architectural disaster," said Hillman. "It looks like something out of (the movie) 'A Clockwork Orange.' If you were trying to design a place to make people feel uncomfortable, you couldn't have done a better job."

By building a $15 million supermarket and retail building in its place, Hillman hopes to serve residents in his 400-unit Charles Towers next door and the 1,718 apartments planned downtown over the next five years.

The proposal is still in its early phases. Hillman has a letter of intent from the California-based Safeway Corp., but he needs city approval and city help in creating additional parking spaces nearby.

City officials are enthusiastic about the concept of replacing the plaza with a supermarket that might help spark a rebirth of downtown as a place for people to live and shop.

"The idea of having a supermarket in that area sounds like a terrific idea, particularly with the city's new emphasis on housing downtown," said Roger Lipitz, chairman of the board of the Baltimore Development Corporation.

Lipitz added, however, that the city needs to study the proposal in greater detail. And he said the city would have to analyze Hillman's request for assistance in building more parking spaces nearby.

Charles Plaza has about 600 parking spaces in an underground garage, but Hillman said the project may require more.

"We'd have to sit down with David and discuss that," said Laurie Schwartz, the city's deputy mayor for economic development. "We certainly realize the need for more parking downtown, and we are feverishly working to create more parking in this general area."

Tom Castleberry, vice president of real estate for Safeway's Eastern Division, said that his company is excited about the prospect of opening its fourth new supermarket in the city in the last four years.

"Not only would this supermarket serve downtown employees who might want to stop by after work, but also the growing, full-time population downtown," said Castleberry.

The company, which owns 1,659 supermarkets nationally, has been increasingly investing in urban areas in recent years, opening stores in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood in 1996, Charles Village in 1997 and Northeast Baltimore in 1998.

The supermarket would replace a plaza that was perhaps the least successful part of the city's landmark Charles Center urban renewal project of the 1960s. The entire project, however, project was praised nationally as a cutting edge example of revitalizing downtown areas.

Starting in 1962 with the construction of One Charles Center, developers built more than a dozen office and retail buildings in a depressed, 33-acre area between Lombard, Saratoga, Liberty and Charles streets downtown.

Charles Plaza was the northern gateway to this landscape of contemporary urban architecture.

Its brick courtyard, with its cube-shaped street lamps and wide, sweeping staircases leading from Charles Towers down to Charles Street, was built by the Mullan Enterprises Inc. in 1968.

The plaza was never a success. In 1985, the Enterprise Development Co. tried to revive it by building an eight-sided glass kiosk for flower vendors on Charles Street and 14 stores and restaurants, some in an enclosed mini-mall.

But most of these stores also failed, perhaps because they were set back from Charles Street in dark areas that made customers feel unsafe, according to longtime observers of downtown businesses.

Today, Charles Plaza is half-vacant, with its flower stand empty and convenience store gathering dust.

Charles Plaza won't be the first part of the Charles Center redevelopment project to fall to the wrecking ball. Construction crews recently started rebuilding the nearby 1963 Hamburger Building - once a men's clothing store - to build Johns Hopkins University's new downtown campus.

"Charles Center was the jumpstarter for downtown development in the 1960's, and it was very important for the city," said Walter Sondheim Jr., former chairman of the Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Corp., which led city redevelopment efforts.

"It was a forerunner for the development of the Inner Harbor, and it had a great deal of success in its early days. But it was also probably hurt by the Inner Harbor's success."

Hillman said his firm hopes to start demolition January and to build the supermarket and attached stores within about 18 months. An earlier plan to build a theater there didn't work out.

The company - which bought Charles Plaza for about $1 million at a foreclosure sale in 1998 - specializes in renovating suburban apartment buildings.

But in recent years, Hillman has shifted gears and has invested more than $100 million buying and fixing up seven properties in downtown Baltimore - including the adjacent Charles Towers, Stanbalt building at 501 St. Paul St and Hecht's building at 301 W. Lexington St.

Hillman has formed a partnership with a company that has experience in building shopping centers, the Erwin L. Greenberg Commercial Corp. of Baltimore.

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