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Belvedere Square, Senator put Govans on the edge


THERE'S FEAR that Govans is dying. Those with a direct stake in the North Baltimore community along venerable York Road are fighting to keep it alive. Yet they have little ammunition.

The homeowners and shop owners get jolted by every little scare, which they see as another nail in the Govans coffin. The latest came in midsummer when the art deco Senator Theatre, which has been threatened with closure more times than "Star Wars" has sequels, yet again faced its final curtain. But a mystery group of investors rescued it by paying back taxes and other bills.

It happened just after the Senator hosted the premier of "Cecil B. Demented," the oddly funny Hollywood spoof by Baltimore filmmaker John Waters. Star Melanie Griffith cursed Baltimore.

"I think John Waters gave" (the rescue money) to save the theater, said Elizabeth Wagner. She works at the Junior League of Baltimore's Wise Penny Shop, a thrift store only doors from the Senator.

"I don't really care [who put up money]," chimed in the shop's manager of the last three years, Marie Sinnock of Parkville. "I'm just glad somebody did it."

"To lose this theater," she said, "would be another arrow in our back because Belvedere Square has been going down for five years. The theater brings people and excitement to the area. It's a little glamour - the premiers, a little like Hollywood."

The slide of Belvedere Square, down the block and across York Road from the Senator, is the cavity that has put Govans on the cusp of decay. Peeling paint on the white exterior of the Senator has marked it for seediness, as if the disease of Belvedere Square has metastasized.

It's been only 14 years since Belvedere Square was redeveloped from Hochschild Kohn's suburban department store.

Today, brown paper is taped to the inside of the windows of what had been seven shops, including such middle-class icons as The Gap and Pier 1 Imports. The big worry is that if the Senator goes, it could be the death knell for Govans.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has family in Govans (the head of the Department of Public Works and the city solicitor also live there), recently drew a line in the asphalt. In an obvious bid to force its rehabilitation, he warned that the city would condemn Belvedere Square. Those in the area take him at his word, grasping.

They have invested a lot of hope in the mayor, mostly because Baltimore cannot afford to lose another neighborhood at a time when the city desperately seeks money for investment and growth to claw its way out of years of despair.

"It's on the edge," a high-ranking City Hall official said of Govans. "The blight is sort of creeping up York Road into Govans. The reality of Baltimore is that 90 percent of the city is in danger" of decaying. "The wealthiest neighborhoods - Canton, Federal Hill, Roland Park, Fells Point - abut the bad neighborhoods." Guilford and Roland Park aren't far from Govans.

The shop owners and the 500 households that are members of the Belvedere Improvement Association seek to pull the neighborhood back from the edge. But they want it done their way. That means a rejection of "big-box" stores or a cineplex with a dozen screens to replace the Senator, both more suitable for a suburban mall. The people who care about Govans are afraid of another big-time failure.

"To bring into the city what they have in the county would be a pity, a travesty," said association president Catherine Evans, who lives on Orkney Road. "The principles that have guided development in the county can't be used in the city. It's not a formula that would work here."

Big-box development of the Belvedere Square area would destroy the village-like flavor of the community of Victorian, arts and crafts and post-World War II row homes. That includes the Senator.

"We don't need suburban strip-mall scale," Ms. Evans said. "Anything too large will overwhelm the residential neighborhood," where nearly all of the homes are owner-occupied. "That's the delicate balance that needs to be maintained. The threat is the question of balance - that what is unique here could be lost."

"The fear here is that the Senator may change" if its owner, Tom Kiefaber, is forced to sell it to make way for a giant multiplex, she said. "The Belvedere Square that was envisioned in 1986 is the perfect complement to the gem of the Senator."

Mr. Kiefaber is table-pounding confident the Senator won't be forced to shut. "The Senator will not close," he said. "There's no threat of that."

"The Senator is an icon," said Greg Novik, owner of Greg's Bagels, in Belvedere Square for nearly 12 years. "If that folds, it would be like waving the white flag of surrender. If it stays, it means everyone will fight to stay viable."

That includes Kuong Phong, 27, owner of the Empire CafM-i, the Asian restaurant directly opposite the Senator. From Bel Air, he opened the restaurant on the site of the old Read's Drug Store two years ago.

Mr. Phong recently wrote to Mayor O'Malley demanding he do more to fight crime in Govans after the restaurant owner lost one of his best cooks to fear.

The mayor's office sent back a form letter.

"The mayor, in his campaign, talked about crime and fixing up places with flowers here and there," Mr. Phong said. But fighting crime is more important than planting flowers - "plant video cameras, plant more neighborhood watches" instead, he said.

"This area used to be fantastic. It can be again if they do something to make it safe here. The foot traffic around here is the kind that scares people away." Mr. Phong was talking about young toughs.

Mr. Novik feels the same way.

"Someone has to say - and I think O'Malley is saying it - that we're not going to lose any more neighborhoods," he said.

Govans is about people having a stake in something they want to keep healthy and alive. The neighborhood should not be allowed to die.

Today's writer

Richard C. Gross is the editor of the Opinion * Commentary page.

City Diary provides a forum for examing issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcome contributions from readers.

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