City officials, armed with the power of condemnation, are moving to breathe new life into the former Chesapeake Restaurant and other long-vacant properties at the gateway to the Charles North neighborhood, part of the city's arts district near Penn Station and the Charles Theater.
Baltimore Development Corp. said yesterday that it is seeking proposals from developers to transform the former landmark restaurant at 1701-1709 N. Charles St., a parking lot and two vacant townhouses around the corner on East Lanvale Street.
Future uses could include a theater, shops, a restaurant, a nightclub or apartments. The agency, the city's economic development arm, said it would seize the properties if deals cannot be reached with the owners.
"On behalf of the neighborhood and the city, we think it's time to move on it," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the development agency. "It's a critical area in the city from an economic development point of view, and it doesn't look good."
The area is re-emerging as a hub of the city's Station North arts and entertainment district, anchored by Everyman Theater, Club Charles and the Charles Theater, which expanded with four new screens in 1999 and spurred the opening of restaurants such as the adjacent Tapas Teatro.
But the former Chesapeake, at Charles and Lanvale, has been shuttered and on and off the market for more than 15 years.
Brodie said the city has given up waiting for the Chesapeake's owner, attorney Robert Sapero, to find a buyer for the building. The development agency has been granted City Council authority to proceed with condemnation and has made an offer to Sapero based on the higher of two appraisals. If he rejects the offer, the city could go ahead with condemnation, Brodie said.
Sapero said yesterday that the the agency's tactics are "questionable" and that he has been negotiating with restaurant operators and other potential buyers to reopen the restaurant in some form.
"Whatever the BDC is doing is very interesting ... and at the least I guess it's premature," he said. "I'm certainly not in favor, to put it politely, in terms of what their wishes are."
Sapero said he has been waiting for the area to be rejuvenated sufficiently to support a high-end restaurant.
"I was not going to open the Chesapeake to anyone who would affect the image of the property ... being a fine dining venue," he said. "My interest for the most part was to have whoever would operate the place to be either a national entity or someone that had the strength locally to operate a top-notch facility."
The property being assembled by the city also includes a parking lot behind the Chesapeake. The parking lot owner, Michael Shecter, declined to comment yesterday.
Brodie said the development agency has been working with the neighborhood for a couple of years to identify key problem properties.
"The Charles Theater is doing wonderfully. Tapas Teatro is turning people away," Brodie said. "It's an area of town where other people are showing that they can do well, and yet this property is sitting vacant and underutilized."
City officials said they envision a single-use or mixed-use project with housing on the upper floors.
Rebecca Gagalis, executive director of Charles Street Development Corp., said the Charles North area has become a priority for the nonprofit group, which is working to revitalize Charles Street.
"Some really great uses have opened up over the years that have given a synergy to the area," Gagalis said. "The Chesapeake is a missing piece that has been vacant for so long. The Chesapeake being redeveloped will create a connection with Penn Station and further enhance the area and generate interest in other properties."
She said she is seeing some of that interest, with people moving in and renovating houses.
Dale Dusman, president of the Charles North Community Association and pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, said the neighborhood supports the development agency's action.
"That block is the gateway into our community," Dusman said. "We're anxious to see the building in use. We have some good solid attractions, and the Chesapeake is a crucial building."