BDC pushes to finalize west-side contract

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's development agency is pushing ahead to finalize the sale of properties in downtown's superblock area to a New York developer before the end of the year, shutting out the charitable foundation that is bitterly contesting the acquisition of its properties.

Baltimore Development Corp. plans to seek the city Board of Estimates' approval tomorrow for the sale to Lexington Square Partners, formerly known as the Chera Feil Goldman Group, whose exclusive negotiating privilege to acquire the properties expires Dec. 31.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who controls three of the five votes on the board, has strongly supported the sale to the developers, selected by the city in a competitive bidding process last year, even if it means resorting to condemnation of property owned by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The foundation owns more than half the buildings in the six-block redevelopment area. Negotiations with the charitable group, which has proposed its own redevelopment of the superblock, collapsed in November after months of on-again, off-again talks, with each side blaming the other for failing to reach an agreement.

But it's unclear whether O'Malley's successor, City Council President Sheila Dixon, would support seizing the foundation's property. Dixon, one of the independent votes on the city spending board, steps in as mayor Jan. 17, when O'Malley becomes governor.

Yesterday, Dixon's executive director, Ruffin Brown, said Dixon has not taken a position on the dispute.

"She's decided to wait and allow Mayor O'Malley time to resolve it," Brown said. "This is something he's been actively engaged in, and she doesn't want to interfere at this point. She wants, obviously, for the west side to continue to be developed. She wants this to move forward and has to wait until Mayor O'Malley has an opportunity to resolve it."

The second independent member of the board, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, said yesterday that she had not finished reviewing the proposed land disposition agreement and had no comment.

BDC officials said yesterday that they had reached a final agreement with Lexington Square Partners to purchase the 37 properties in a 3.6-acre area bounded by Lexington, Liberty, Fayette and Howard streets.

The developer will pay the appraised value of $21.6 million, though the purchase price will be reduced by about $8 million the developer expects to spend on environmental cleanup and demolition, according to the sales contract.

The project would be the largest single private development in the city's west-side revitalization plan and link Charles Center on the east to the University of Maryland and the University of Maryland Medical Center complex on the west. Housing would make up the bulk of the $250 million project, known as Lexington Square, with some 400 market-rate apartments, 1,000 parking spaces and as much as 200,000 square feet of shops.

Even if the board approves the sales contract, the city could face a prolonged legal fight to acquire the property. The sales contract with Lexington gives the city until the end of 2007 to assemble the property.

City officials have said they intend to condemn property owned by the Weinberg Foundation. Yesterday, Shale D. Stiller, the foundation's chairman and chief executive, said he did not want to comment because he had not seen the land disposition agreement. He said the city has not moved forward with its eminent domain case against the foundation and that talks have not resumed between the foundation and the city. City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler, who had been leading negotiations for the city, could not be reached.

The superblock has languished amid nearby revitalization projects on the west side, such as the restored Hippodrome Theatre, the Centerpoint apartment and retail project and the Weinberg Foundation's redevelopment of Stewart's department store, which will become the world headquarters for Catholic Relief Services next summer.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, one of the groups that has been working to resolve the dispute between the city and the foundation and avert a legal fight, said yesterday that it makes sense to put pressure on the winning developer by finalizing the land disposition agreement.

"From Liberty Street eastward, downtown is experiencing lots and lots of progress, and buildings that have been neglected for years are starting to show new life, and even a major supermarket [Super Fresh] is about to open its doors," on Charles Street, at Charles Plaza, Fowler said. "It's important we connect the progress achieved east of Liberty to the blocks west of Liberty.

"Certainly Eutaw Street is coming alive, as well as parts of Howard Street, but we've got a large north-south corridor of properties that are preventing the connection of these two healthier districts. For us to have an overall, reawakened downtown, we need the superblock vicinity to show some life."

The developer must show the city a general schematic plan no later than March 31, start building the first phase of the mixed-use project within a year of settlement and complete it within five years, according to the sales agreement with the city.

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