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Differing perspectives on the history of Belvedere...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Differing perspectives on the history of Belvedere Square

I have had one of my stores in Belvedere Square for the past five years and I, too, used to believe that the only person at fault for the shopping center's gradual demise was James Ward.

After all, why couldn't he get some decent "magnet" store in that center? Why were tenants leaving? Was he being too greedy and inflexible?

As far I now know, Mr. Ward is the one who managed to revitalize a commercial district, which was in trouble until 1984, and give it new life for some 14 years. I am told that he loaned money to some small "ma and pa" shops who previously worked out of their trucks.

In addition, many of the national tenants to whom he gave money went out of business nationally. And the businesses who left for "better pastures" went out of business, too.

Several revitalization proposals were put forth before the community and every one of them was shot down, either by the community or city officials. The community doesn't want large stores, like Old Navy. They don't want a grocery store, either.

They don't even want a Burger King to take the place of Chili's, which left a few weeks ago. They want small, quaint Georgetown-like shops. But no one seems to realize that small shops come when a viable "draw" store exists, not the other way around.

To give you an example of the community's intransigence and unrealism, at one of the meetings I attended, a volunteer architect presented slides showing attractive renovated buildings and a new pedestrian-only area where Belvedere Avenue now cuts through the center.

Community participants started complaining about the fact that some of them may no longer be able to make a left turn (or right turn, perhaps) from Northern Parkway onto their street.

I tried to bring them back on course, pointing out that if the center goes bust, only rats and vagrants will be making left and right turns all over the place. To no avail. Since then, I don't bother trying to attend these meetings, as they are a waste of my time.

Frankly, I can't believe that this sort of textbook case of failure par excellence would have been allowed to go that far under the leadership of Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

I don't know what sins Mr. Ward may have committed in the past, but if good journalism requires balanced reporting, then I think it's high time to take a look at the community and its elected officials for a change, and not just Mr. Ward.

From a strictly business standpoint, I don't see how this center is ever going to come to life again unless a good anchor or "draw" store is brought in, whether the community likes it or not.

Once a good draw is in place, the little guys like me will start applying for space again. If not, I will finally decide that it's time to kiss my investment goodbye and go look for another more business-friendly area.

Incidentally, I am in the process of opening another store in the Baltimore area, just in case.

Al Bertaux

Ellicott City

The writer is owner of Bertaux Gallery & Framin' Place.

In 1986, James Ward took a half-empty strip center and a vacant three-story department store and created Belvedere Square.

Soon after came the Schmoke administration, which put the city in a tailspin. Then, through no fault of Mr. Ward, most of the national tenants closed their stores across the country.

Chili's Grill and Bar, which had been waiting for an answer from the city about Mr. Ward's plans, decided to close when their security expenses surpassed their rent.

Now, the neighborhood association, which didn't want the original Belvedere Square and fought it for two years, wants everything to be the way it was when Belvedere Square was built in 1986.

But times have changed. There are no more Urban Development Action Grants available, retailers demand larger stores, and shopping centers need anchors, as you stated in your July 5 editorial ("Belvedere Square disaster").

To blame Mr. Ward, who has put more money into York Road than any other developer, is absurd. More than a year ago, he came up with a redevelopment plan that would have brought back Belvedere Square and, additionally, would have saved the historic Senator Theatre.

What Belvedere Square needs is some leadership from the city. Stop blaming Mr. Ward. Stop worrying about the past; focus on the future before it's too late.

Commit to a course of action and put it into motion to save Belvedere Square, the remaining merchants and the residents.

Virginia Marks

Baltimore

It warmed our hearts to see your editorial July 5 on Belvedere Square.

As 20-year-plus residents of this area, we have lived through the ups and downs of Belvedere Square's commercial area.

It was opposition to the extent of James Ward's proposed development in the early 1980s that fortified this neighborhood, brought a cohesive group of like-minded people together.

We pushed to have him reuse existing buildings, design an urban marketplace that would draw from many areas and serve as a gathering place for families without destroying the surrounding neighborhoods. Mr. Ward said it would never work, but it did for many years.

It was his greed, in part, that was Belvedere Square's demise. But it was also his management company's poor supervision, as he moved to Florida. As neighbors and customers, we were aware of what was happening behind the scenes. When Mr. Ward dramatically increased the rents, forcing many of the smaller merchants to move out, they told us about it. The market continued to decline, but Mr. Ward continued to do nothing.

His revised plan for Belvedere Square, presented last year, suggested the demolition of the 500 block of Orkney Road to put in a "big box" store and the demolition of the 400 block of Rosebank to put in a parking lot. That plan that did not go over well with the neighbors. Once again, it is the extent of his proposed plan that has unified the neighbors.

When opposition on the east side of York Road grew, he had the plan revised, putting the big-box development on the west side. His new plan includes the demolition of different houses, this time in the 400 block of Belvedere, and the relocation of a small Baptist church to property south of Belvedere that he doesn't own -- all so he can put in a grocery store and pharmacy.

Despite what Mr. Ward says, we are not categorically opposed to redeveloping the market area. We do, however, feel we've been double-crossed by him, the city and its political leaders.

When Mr. Ward comes up with a viable plan that uses land he controls, maintains the urban appeal of our neighborhood and doesn't condemn our homes, then we'll talk. Until then, we'll just worry about what he's doing behind our backs to push through his plan.

Blair G. Farrand Monica C. Graham

Baltimore

Medicare woes reveal defects

The demise of the Medicare HMOs is a disaster for Baltimore's low-income senior citizens.

In East Baltimore, thousands of senior citizens struggle to make ends meet on Social Security and occasionally a small pension. These seniors lived the American dream and paid their dues. They worked in the steelyards, bought homes in the city and raised children who climbed the socioeconomic ladder to the suburbs.

At Baltimore Medical System, we provide medical care to about 5,000 of these low-income seniors. The shortsightedness of the federal government in putting the squeeze on Medicare HMOs has hurt our patients badly.

Last month, about 150 of our patients were dropped by a Medicare plan for non-payment of premiums. They simply couldn't afford to stay in the plan when the HMO introduced $50 monthly premiums.

In another few months, when the HMO benefits are no longer available to our patients, the rest of our 2,000 Medicare HMO members will lose their pharmacy benefits.

A Medicare demonstration program, started in the late 1970s, allowed us until December 1998 to give many of our senior patients an unlimited prescription medicine benefit, along with free medical transportation and a host of specialty services all available at the same community health center.

Thanks to these benefits (which have now changed), our patients never skimped on filling their prescriptions or seeing the doctor, despite limited incomes.

The impact of expanded benefits on health and quality of life is evident. In a recent sampling of adult patients who have been with us over 10 years, 52 percent are over age 80 and 6 percent are over age 90. These are low-income seniors who have remained relatively healthy, living in their own homes, and have not ended up in a nursing home on Medicaid.

Unfortunately, along with Medicare HMOs, our demonstration program is slated to end. With the help of Rep. Ben Cardin and other farsighted politicians, we are working to renew the program.

It would be a great help if somewhere in the federal administration, the needs of low-income seniors were recognized, and programs like ours were supported, comprehensively studied and replicated, instead of squeezed out.

Jay Wolvovsky

Baltimore

The writer is executive director of the Baltimore Medical System.

Your July 7 editorial on Medicare seems a day late and a dollar short ("A health-care disaster in the making"). Last year, when Medicare first abandoned the Eastern Shore along with other rural counties, we and the state medical society met with a delegation of Maryland congressmen and CareFirst executives.

It was made clear this was the opening volley and that, short of a major infusion of funds or a change in the budget act, the national program was in jeopardy.

The message was heard and nothing was done. Now, the Medicare managed care program has failed and the only affordable prescription policy for senior citizens is becoming extinct. The subsidies proposed in Congress are political toys and, while potentially costly to the budget, will only minimally help the ever-increasing financial burden on seniors of drug costs.

The health care system stands at an explosive divide -- either change to meet the health care needs of citizens or fail. The crisis we have been looking at is real, and we are poorly prepared to manage it.

This is the time to reconvene a truly blue-ribbon, bipartisan, provider panel to study, develop and present a sweeping national health care delivery system. There are many lives and many votes hanging on this proposal.

Dr. John C. Seymour

Chestertown

The writer is president of the Kent County Medical Society.

The editorial "A health-care disaster in the making" (July 7) is laudable in calling attention to the current system of providing health care, particularly to seniors, and the need for an overhaul.

However, while going after "sharply reduced payments to HMOs," the underlying problem remains unaddressed.

Remember that these reduced payments were triggered after years of Medicare waste, fraud and inefficiency. Even today, there remain unnecessary treatments and modalities prescribed merely to gouge and milk the system.

The HMOs, hospitals, physicians and other providers are as much to blame as anyone else.

Let's be clear that 90 percent of the costs attributed to per-patient care arise from bureaucratic paper-pushing. This applies to the escalating costs of health care as a whole in this country.

The answer is clear: We need to cut out all HMOs, their paper pushing, their overpaid CEOs, and go to one single-payer national system such as Canadians have.

Yes, some care will be rationed and a bit of choice may have to be sacrificed, but the far greater crime is leaving more then 44 million of our fellow citizens uninsured, and our seniors without the health security they deserve.

This country can and must do better. It will only come when the needs of people are not sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed.

Philip A. Stahl

Columbia

Your July 7 editorial on Medicare did not go far enough in pointing the finger of blame. Washington is not alone. State governments have contributed to the dilemma by consciously underfunding Medicaid.

The insurance industry has been doubly guilty by trying to deny care to their beneficiaries while at the same time trying to squeeze as much care as possible from their underpaid providers.

There is waste in the delivery system, but it can't be trimmed simply by not paying for care.

The crisis is far greater than anyone has been willing to state publicly. The editorial pointed out that insurance companies are losing money on Medicare. So are physicians and other providers (home care, long-term care, etc.). Some 70 percent of hospitals lose money caring for Medicare patients.

Hospital margins are too low to support maintenance of facilities and service infrastructures. Medicare is rising despite Draconian utilization controls. The Medicare population is expanding rapidly. Spending on Medicare will have to increase sharply, meaning the trust fund is in danger of being wiped out, despite denials by the White House and Congress.

To say that Medicare spending won't increase be- cause of an aging population is like denying you are getting older simply by no longer having birthday parties.

Nurses, who are the principal providers of care, are in the shortest supply ever.

Failure to deal with these issues effectively now will cause the crisis to continue over the next few years, regardless of who is elected in November.

The financing problems will continue with insurers bailing, our leaders continuing to "save" money by not paying bills. It will grow to unprecedented proportions. This will precipitate a collapse of the delivery system.

In turn, this is likely to lead to federal intervention that will usher in a single-payer, national health system that will provide universally poor quality care for all of us. If you love Amtrak, the Postal Service and the IRS, you'll love this "solution" to the problem.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a solution. But there is an approach to solving the crisis that can work. First, we need to scrap the conventional wisdom and stop confusing our delivery system with the financing system.

We need to stop thinking that we have a national health policy. What we really have is a national financing policy masquerading as health policy. We then need to set about developing a true national health policy (how much care, what kinds of services, who is eligible, what is a reasonable amount to pay out of pocket, and so on.)

To do this, we need to have a national debate. Not the kind we had in 1992, in which anyone with a differing opinion was branded as either "mean-spirited" or "obstructionist." We need to have a no-holds-barred, impassioned debate as we have historically done in this country for more than 200 years.

All sides should be encouraged, no, required, to espouse their beliefs and feelings passionately. When everyone has been heard, and all positions are understood by all of the participants, we can come together and agree on a national health policy.

Then and only then, can we begin to figure out how to pay for all of the health care we want as a nation.

William J. Ward Jr.

Bel Air

Solving nation's energy problem

Energy is one of the most important components of our huge negative balance of trade. In recent months, imported oil has switched places with imported cars as the No. 1 source of dollars flowing out of the United States. Much of the enormous increase in gasoline prices -- 50 cents a year here in Maryland -- goes overseas.

For several decades, we have woefully neglected our energy infrastructure, as can be seen at both the pump and the plug -- the brownouts and blackouts that seem to occur every summer.

We need to bring our national energy systems up to the same standards as our communications systems, using new ideas and technologies.

Electric vehicles hold some promise for reducing our growing dependence on tenuous foreign oil supplies, but we will need a clean, safe source of electricity to recharge those cars. And we have such a source here in Maryland, the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

With its first-in-the-nation renewed operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, this plant will be with us for another 20 years. That sure beats using natural gas imported from Texas or Canada.

Energy and the economy are strongly interdependent. We have been ignoring energy concerns. If we continue to do so, it will be at our own economic peril.

Fred T. Stetson

Germantown

Natural-gas autos cost about $3,500 more to produce than standard cars. Natural gas is a much cleaner fuel than gasoline and the price is much less.

Daimler-Chrysler is trying to reduce the cost of making natural-gas vehicles before selling them to the public. I hope and pray that natural gas autos will be mass- produced soon so that we will be less dependent on imported oil.

Joseph Lerner

Baltimore

Ed Hershon's letter ("Our own inaction on energy has caused today's high prices," June 26) makes a valid point, but reaches for the incorrect solution.

The writer correctly states that "the oil shortages of 1973-74 and 1979-80 should have been America's wake-up call for a comprehensive policy on ... our dependence on foreign oil."

Unfortunately, though, he concludes the solution is conservation (i.e., senseless and unnecessary self-denial and hardship), and "pie-in-the-sky" renewable energy sources.

In truth, we should have had the foresight 20 to 30 years ago to embark on an all-out policy of using our offshore and Alaskan North Slope oil resources.

We would now be oil-independent, and no longer at the mercy of the oil cartels.

Harry E. Bennett Jr.

Baltimore

There is no doubt that we deserve the high prices of gasoline we are paying. This situation has been developing for several years.

We were duped by oil industry analysts who, with a wink and a nod, led us to believe that OPEC would never agree to production limits. Consequently, people bought monster gas-guzzling SUVs and similar vehicles.

Another reason is that our driving habits are exceedingly wasteful, and our government is at least partially responsible. Speeds in excess of 55 mph waste gas. It is common to see cars driving in excess of 80 mph on the interstate highways. It is easy to see the unburned fuel being belched from the exhaust system.

When the speed limits were raised, our governor imposed a "no tolerance" approach. The rule was supposed to be no speeds above 65 mph were allowed and violators would be ticketed.

This was initially enforced; however, now it is routine to see state police cars cruising at 70 to 75 mph with the rest of the traffic. This conveys a tacit approval of these excessive speeds, which contribute to excessive fuel use as well as horrific accidents.

As bad as the situation is, we should either drive slower, fewer miles, with more efficient vehicles, or shut up and pay the high prices we have helped create.

William T. Higgs

Reisterstown

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