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Giant store is food for thought in community

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Joseph Stewart and Sarah Begus live within a couple of blocks of each other in Northeast Baltimore. But when it comes to their views on the new Giant supermarket coming to their Better Waverly neighborhood, the two are miles apart.

To Stewart, who has lived for 20 years near what would be the entrance to the new store, the Giant will breathe new life into the beleaguered community, replacing substandard houses and a long-vacant Super Fresh with a new building that will provide a sorely needed service to residents and attract new businesses.

"In my opinion, we ought to be grateful," said Stewart, 55, a lawyer for a state agency.

Begus, who has lived near what would be the new store's loading dock for 26 years, says the supermarket and its parking lot are so big they will overwhelm the neighborhood, destroying several mature trees and unnecessarily adding to noise and traffic.

"The way this Giant is planned will destroy this neighborhood," said Begus, 59, a retired college professor, who acknowledges the community needs a grocery store.

The dispute - over the size, configuration and design - has been roiling the neighborhood just south of the demolished Memorial Stadium ever since the city announced in January that Giant Food was coming to the area as part of the O'Malley administration's efforts to enhance the livability of marginal communities by attracting more grocery stores.

As the city nears its final approval of the project, those on both sides agree that the issue extends beyond the confines of Better Waverly, a community of about 2,500 bounded by 33rd Street on the north, Exeter Hall Avenue on the south, Greenmount Avenue on the west and Loch Raven Boulevard on the east.

Activists in the Better Waverly Community Organization, who are mounting a last-ditch effort to reduce the size of the parking lot and modify the store's entrance, say that in its haste to attract development, the city failed to consult the community beforehand on what kind of development it wanted, and where.

"In hindsight, we should have pressed harder to have the store sited in the commercial district" along Greenmount Avenue, said Winifred De Palma, a resident and community activist.

City officials - who contend that the community's input not only has been adequate but has resulted in several changes - say the significance of the project is in the message it sends to communities and developers.

"It reinforces that the city is willing to accept change and the city is willing to grow," said Kevin J. Malachi, director of small business and neighborhood commercial development for the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

The proposal for the Better Waverly Giant has also attracted the attention of the Governor's Office of Smart Growth, which has met with city and Giant officials but has made no formal recommendations.

The office says it recognizes that attracting groceries and other retailers is crucial to revitalizing older urban areas, but adds that it is equally essential that such new services be compatible with established neighborhoods.

"You need a grocery store. I would not want to say anything that would keep that from happening," said John Frece, a spokesman for the office. "Had we been involved in this decision earlier, it might have been possible to have a design more acceptable to citizens of Waverly."

The key component allowing the $7.5 million project to move ahead - a bill to amend the area's urban renewal plan to let the commercial district extend into a residential area and allow the demolition of about two dozen homes to create a single lot - passed the City Council in June.

But related legislation to close several streets is still pending.

And the project's developer, Vanguard Equities of Bare Hills in Baltimore County, is scheduled to make its fourth appearance Thursday before the Design Advisory Panel of the city's Planning Commission. The Planning Commission is tentatively scheduled to meet the next week to decide whether to give final approval to the project's design.

At its meeting Sept. 19, the advisory group delivered a split decision to the project's opponents. It signed off on locating the loading dock off Homestead Street in the heart of the residential community, remaining unpersuaded by activist arguments that it would be better to build the dock off a service road, Old York Road.

But the design group said there were still problems with the location of the main entrance, said more plantings were needed in the parking lot and asked for details on lighting.

"We did not expect to have as many comments at such a late date as we had," Jon M. Laria, a lawyer for the developer, said after the meeting. "We'll address them when we come back."

Earlier, Laria noted that development was "always going to be a balance" between community concerns and developer's interests. "We're not going to be able to satisfy each and every resident," he said.

According to Laria, Vanguard - which will prepare the site and lease it to Giant, which in turn will build the store - has reached agreement to purchase all but one of the properties needed for the project. The developer hopes to begin demolition in January and have the store open as early as November next year.

Among the property owners who have reached agreement with Vanguard is Bryon Predika. Predika wouldn't disclose the terms of his agreement, except to say that he would be getting more than the $80,100 assessed value of the two-story subdivided 1887 wood frame house in the 600 block of Gorsuch Ave. that he has owned and lived in for 18 years.

"I'm of mixed feelings," Predika, 63, said of the project. "I love my house and I love my yard. However, the neighborhood is in such bad shape. If I could pick up my house and move it, I'd be happy."

Figures from the 2000 census confirm his take on the neighborhood.

In the last decade, population in Better Waverly declined by 13 percent, while the number of vacancies nearly tripled to 18 percent and homeownership dropped to 40 percent, 10 percent below the city's average.

Advocates say the Giant is the best hope for Better Waverly to reverse its fortunes, and also a chance for nearby neighborhoods such as Abell and Waverly to enhance their appeal as well.

"We really need this," said City Councilman Robert W. Curran, a Northeast Democrat whose district includes Better Waverly and who was the lead sponsor of the bill to extend the commercial district.

After months of meetings and negotiations, some changes have been made to the project that opponents concede are improvements. These include changing the wood-and-brick exterior to a more urban-looking all-brick design, and preserving two historic houses on Gorsuch.

But they say far too much of the houses' expansive yards is being taken for the project, and they lament the loss of Predika's house, which they say is among the neighborhood's best-maintained properties.

"I don't know any neighborhood that would lose its best houses," said Paula Branch, co-chairwoman of the community group.

Ultimately, they believe the parking lot, with room for about 270 cars, about 70 more than the Safeway in Charles Village, will take too much from the neighborhood.

"There's a dramatic need for a grocery store that fits the character of an urban neighborhood, not a need for a suburban store," said Begus. "We're heartbroken over this."

Even after the design issues are settled, the matter of the Better Waverly Giant could come up in another context.

Vanguard says it may seek city assistance to help defray the cost of acquiring the property.

The Baltimore Development Corp.'s Malachi says the city would be willing to listen.

"The city is open to different incentives," he said. "We'll have to see what they come to the table with."

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