When Nam Koo decided to buy and convert an old downtown movie theater into a clothing warehouse, fellow Korean-American businessmen told him for that kind of investment, he should locate elsewhere.
"Downtown is not good," he recalls them saying. "But I had some kind of feeling, one day this will be good."
He may be right, but he may also not be around to enjoy it.
Koo is the odd man out in an agreement signed last week between the city and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation that finally should propel the long-stalled "superblock" redevelopment forward. The city and the foundation will swap parcels of land in the old west-side retail district, giving Weinberg development rights to the block bound by Lexington, Howard, Clay and Park.
The problem - from Koo's standpoint, at least - is that some of the land the city traded to the Weinberg Foundation actually belongs to Koo.
At least it does for now. The city is trying to buy him out, but should that fail, it will condemn and seize his property - the former New Theatre that houses a warehouse for Koo's chain of clothing stores on the second floor, and one of his stores, New York Fashions, on the street level. The Weinberg Foundation plans to raze the building and erect a new tower with shops, a parking garage and offices or apartments or both.
On a recent day, it seemed oddly quiet in the upstairs warehouse, given the bustle of shoppers and lunchtime strollers down below on Lexington Street. Boxes of apparel, a tangle of clothing racks, and office equipment are spread through the cavernous room, one end of which retains the raked floor of the former movie theater balcony. Koo's son, Linn, had just returned from a buying trip in Los Angeles, and the two were still trying to digest the news that the city had turned their property over to Weinberg, the powerful nonprofit that owns about 60 percent of the superblock.
The city and the foundation had been feuding for months - Weinberg refused to sell its superblock properties, effectively putting the area's redevelopment on hold, and the city was moving toward condemning its buildings. But suddenly, the two sides were all smiles at a City Hall press conference, announcing the land swap and the turning over of part of the superblock to the foundation for development.
"The person with development rights was supposed to be condemned along with us," Linn Koo says. "It's very upsetting. They should treat every business fairly and appropriately, and I don't think they've done either."
You may not have been to the west side lately - it's been a long time since this was the place to shop downtown, and much of it shows its age: some stores are boarded up or vacant, some of the historic buildings have been abused or neglected over the years and there's a decidedly downmarket air over much of it. And yet, it's as broken in and comfortable as an old shoe - people can pick up a T-shirt or a household knickknack without fear of sticker shock or haughty sales clerks.
But change is, literally, just around the corner. Several stylish apartment and retail buildings like the Atrium and Centerpoint have opened in recent years, and Starbucks has gained a toehold. Can a Panera and a Barnes & Noble be far behind; are local merchants and their customers going to be pushed aside in favor of the same franchises you see everywhere else catering to a trendier set?
That would be a shame - so much of the retail experience these days is mass-marketed ersatz. The other day, I grabbed lunch from a Salvadoran vendor at the nearby Lexington Market, then stopped at the Centerpoint's Starbucks to find a glossed-up Latin American theme playing out, with posters advertising their dulce de leche lattes and one of those Putumayo-type CDs playing on the sound system.
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, the president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, says that a redeveloped west side would have room for both national chains and independent stores such as those owned by Koo. It doesn't, however, call for a warehouse, and the city has identified seven or eight possible locations where he might relocate that part of his operation. Brodie is planning to meet with Koo soon to present an offer to buy his property - he wouldn't reveal the figure - and, if it's rejected, will proceed toward condemnation.
"Mr. Koo is the kind of merchant we want to keep," Brodie said. "The problem is where he is located. His property is part of the assemblage of our agreement with Weinberg."
Koo's lawyer, John C. Murphy, said he anticipates a battle over the city's efforts to acquire the property. "The city just sort of assumed the Weinberg development would be better than retaining the Koos," Murphy said. "It's a real value judgment, and I question that. They're not a beeper store."
For the Koos, the past nine years - ever since the city first started talking about seizing west side property for redevelopment - have been "agony," Linn says. Several times, the city has told Koo that he has to leave to make way for redevelopment, only to have the plans stall each time. Meanwhile, they've had to put on hold any improvement or expansion plans - such as for an online venture - not knowing if or when they would have to move.
"I feel like someone is pulling me by the nose," Nam Koo says. "I have to go this way, I have to go that way."