West side remake gains

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's spending board approved a land swap yesterday that will allow developers to move ahead with plans to revitalize a blighted swath of the west side with new apartments, shops and offices.

The approval paves the way for the long-stalled superblock area in Baltimore's old retail district to be developed by two teams - one led by a New York developer and the other a partnership between the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Cordish Co.

But the city still needs to obtain a key parcel now owned by a retailer who has vowed to hang on.

The swap approved by the city's Board of Estimates was agreed to in March by the city and the Weinberg Foundation, one of the biggest property owners in the renewal area. Under terms of the deal, the foundation will receive city-owned or acquired properties on the north side of Lexington Street between Howard Street and Park Avenue. Weinberg and Cordish will redevelop the area, possibly with an office or residential tower.

In return, the foundation will convey properties it owns on the south side of Lexington Street to the city. That area will be redeveloped by Lexington Square Partners LLC, a team selected in competitive bidding by the city more than two years ago.

The Weinberg Foundation and Cordish are working with two potential tenants for a possible office tower, said David S. Cordish, the company's chairman. The team has committed to having ground-level retail outlets facing Lexington Street, he said.

"It is too early to predict the use or uses above the retail," Cordish said in an e-mail. "We have two major prospects we are working with in regard to an office tower. The tower could well be residential; it is too early to say."

Lexington Square plans a $250 million, mixed-use project with 400 one- and two-bedroom apartments in two towers as tall as 14 stories, 900 parking spaces and 300,000 square feet of local and national retail space in a three-block area bounded by Fayette, Howard, Lexington and Liberty streets.

The developers hope to take title on the land from the city by the end of the year, start construction early next year and complete the project two to three years after that.

Shale D. Stiller, president of the Weinberg Foundation, said the agreement with the city stipulates that the Weinberg/Cordish project is not required to move forward until Lexington Square starts construction on the south side of Lexington.

"We are eager to move ahead," Stiller said. "But no one is going to want to move into the small area we have on the north side until the stores and old buildings on the south side are torn down and something is going on. In terms of timing, we hope that [Lexington Square] gets moving very fast."

The agreement to swap properties resolved a dispute over the Weinberg-owned properties that had stalled the project, with the city initiating condemnation.

The agreement approved yesterday acknowledges that the properties the foundation is surrendering are worth more than those it is getting in return.

The city is now appraising properties included in the swap to determine a value and expects to begin negotiations with the foundation to settle on a payment, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development arm.

The Weinberg/Cordish project hinges in part on the city's ability to turn over properties it has promised in the land swap north of Lexington.

New York Fashions

Two of those buildings, one fronting on Lexington Street and the other a former movie theater on Park Avenue, have been the flagship store and warehouse for about two decades for New York Fashions, a local chain with stores in nearby malls.

The city is currently having the properties appraised with the intention of making an offer to the New York Fashions' owner, Nam Koo, Brodie said after the Board of Estimates approval.

"We will make a final offer," Brodie said. "We are also trying to meet with him about relocating. This is the only property left," to acquire for the land swap.

But Koo still doesn't want to move from his 12,000-square-foot store, one of the largest retail spaces on the west side, said his attorney, John C. Murphy.

"They really have no interest whatsoever in moving," Murphy said. "This is centrally located. And the flagship is well-located for downtown shoppers. It seems to me this is just totally arbitrary for the city to say we're going to give these properties to the Weinberg [Foundation]."

In the past the city has acquired many of its properties for urban renewal projects through a "quick take" seizure. But in decisions this year, Maryland's highest court has limited the city's use of that tool. The city could use the traditional - and lengthier - condemnation process.

Several property and business owners in the Lexington Square development area have filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of BDC's selection of Lexington Square Partners in 2004 at a closed meeting. That case was sent back to Baltimore Circuit Court by the Maryland Court of Appeals and is set for trial July 30, Murphy said.

Unanimous approval

The five-member Board of Estimates unanimously approved the land swap agreement yesterday after a protest by Arnold M. Jolivet, president of the American Minority Contractors and Businesses Association. Jolivet argued that the city should require the Weinberg/Cordish team to include a minority developer as an equity partner.

"It's been the policy of the city to require developers seeking city assistance to make a good-faith effort to involve minority developers and women developers," Jolivet said.

"There isn't any sound reason why this should be an exception. Without the city's assistance, this project wouldn't be a project," Jolivet said.


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