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O'Malley approves seizure of properties


Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley approved yesterday the seizure of merchants' buildings in the west downtown redevelopment zone without providing a long-promised city fund to cushion the blow for displaced businesses.

O'Malley led the city's Board of Estimates in voting to condemn and buy six properties on Baltimore and Eutaw streets for a total of $2 million to make room for an apartment and shopping complex proposed by the Banc of America Community Development Corp.

Two merchants who will be evicted are Lou and Judy Boulmetis, who will receive $127,000 for his family's more than 70-year-old hat shop, Hippodrome Hatters, at 15 N. Eutaw St.

"They are making me an offer I can't refuse," Lou Boulmetis said after the meeting. "I have nowhere to go and no money to move. They are going to have to arrest me and physically evict me to get me out of the building."

It was not immediately clear when the hat shop would have to close, but the developers said they wanted to demolish the building by February. The city granted itself the authority to take immediate possession of the building yesterday.

"We will take care of you, and we will do the right thing," said O'Malley to the Boulmetises. "But we are going to move forward today."

The Boulmetises' attorney, John Murphy, complained that it wasn't fair for the city to displace the couple before the city creates the $3 million to $5 million "merchants assistance fund" proposed by O'Malley's administration in March to provide low-income loans to help shop owners move.

The Boulmetises have been thinking about talking to the owner of the former Palmer House building about a block north on Eutaw Street. But they don't have an estimate of how much it would cost to renovate that location or an assurance from the city about who will pay for the renovation, Murphy said.

Hippodrome Hatters has been offered a lease in the new retail complex being built at Eutaw and Baltimore streets by the Bank of America. But it's unclear what the Boulmetises will do during the two years while the complex is being built.

O'Malley said the merchants assistance fund has been delayed because he expected a business group, West Side Renaissance Inc., to contribute money to the effort, but that group doubted his support for the redevelopment. O'Malley said the group was skeptical because he voted against the condemnation of merchants' properties as a councilman in 1999.

Ronald Kreitner, director of West Side Renaissance Inc., said, "It was not clear that the city intended to proceed in the whole area. ... Now, there appears to be a commitment to proceed on the scale that the west side requires."

O'Malley said yesterday that he strongly backs the redevelopment project and that the city will do its best to be fair to the ousted merchants, even if the city has not yet put together the merchants assistance fund.

"I am not a hypocrite," O'Malley said. "Some people say that we're putting the cart in front of the horse. But there are a lot of horses here and a lot of carts here, and we have to lead the wagon train forward."

Maria Johnson, director of development for the Banc America Community Development Corp., complained that any further delays in the city's buying of properties could threaten the project. "We were awarded the development rights back in December of last year. ... The project gets more and more at risk as time goes on," she said.

Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer for the Baltimore Development Corp., said the city has taken longer than expected with the project because it has worked hard to put together a generous merchants assistance fund.

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