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Plans for Northwood center moving slowly

Here's what you'll find in the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center:

Sunny's Subs. Rainbow Apparel. Northwood Liquors. Asiatic Cutz Barber Shop. ABC Chinese Carry Out. Save-A-Lot grocery store.

Here's what you'll find in Belvedere Square:

Bon Bons. Atwaters. Earth's Essence. Farmstead Cheese. Grand Cru. Ikan Seafood & Sushi.

You don't have to know exactly what the stores are to know we're talking about places that appeal to two distinct classes of shoppers. I bring up this comparison only because the residents of Northwood want to turn Northwood Plaza into something more like Belvedere Square.

The nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center worked with residents and in January 2008 drew up a new plan for the plaza in Northeast Baltimore between Loch Raven Boulevard and Hillen Road. But those plans were stalled by hard economic times, the seeming reluctance of the center's owners to upgrade and delays by neighboring Morgan State University to demolish a vacant hardware store and build a business school.

Even the death of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris, who was gunned down in a botched robbery at a Northwood Plaza jazz club in September 2008, couldn't get reforms moving with any urgency.

The killing shocked the city and sent lawmakers and residents scrambling to make good on their promises to refurbish Northwood and clean up the crime there. Mayor Shelia Dixon said at the time that had Northwood "been a viable center," the killing of Harris "wouldn't have happened."

A month after the former councilman was gunned down, Dixon and the City Council president, who is now the mayor, used the plaza as a backdrop to promote an economic study designed to convince retailers that Northwood could be a lucrative spot for high-end retail.

They planned to lure shopkeepers with tax incentives similar to those doled out to the big developers building high-rises and hotels near the Inner Harbor. They wanted a standalone supermarket — one more like a Superfresh than the Save-A-Lot — with a Belvedere Square market feel.

But two years after Harris' death, and as the trial for three men charged in his death gets under way in Baltimore Circuit Court, with jury selection continuing this week, Northwood Plaza looks much the same as it did before the gunfire.

Competing groups seem to have different visions of what Northwood should look like — boutique shops, according to residents, a "college town," according to the university — and everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to make the first move.

Part of the problem: Three city council members complain that the strip mall owners have no incentive to make changes because they're making money.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she's "disappointed with the private owners. I understand that they're reluctant to make any kind of investment until they see Morgan stepping up so we can do a complete plan. On the other hand, we've struggled and negotiated with the private owners under their obligation for security and other enhancements. But we have an open mind. They are making a living there."

Everyone, as Clarke alluded, is waiting on Morgan to fulfill promises made years ago to demolish the sprawling and long-vacant Hechinger's building, which the school owns, and put up the planned business school. "I'm hoping … that will be the impetus to revitalize the mall," said City Councilman Robert W. Curran.

The councilman lives near the center, worked his first job as a teenager at a grocery store there and saw his first movie alone, "North by Northwest," at a now-shuttered theater there. He still buys his lottery tickets at the liquor store and chicken from Sunny's.

Curran told me he met with Morgan's president a few weeks ago and received assurances that bulldozers will soon begin moving on the old hardware store. Morgan's president, David Wilson, told me that the demolition contract has been signed, and as soon as rodents are removed from the abandoned building, work will begin. He said the new $55 million to $65 million business school could be completed in a few years.

"Hopefully, the students who enter Morgan this year will be in the new school of business before they graduate," Wilson said. He noted that earlier plans to build a hotel and use it for training students in the hospitality business have been shelved; he said such ventures at other colleges have not proved profitable.

Wilson called the Hechinger's site an "eyesore" but declined repeated overtures to discuss the aesthetics of the rest of the shopping center, preferring to say he wants to see something that "leads to a more vibrant community" that "will transform" the area.

The president did agree that his institution "is the first step toward jump-starting the economy and community revitalization of Northeast Baltimore."

Jerry Trout III, the principal owner of Trout Management, which was hired to run the center after Harris' death, said the owners are also waiting on Morgan to take down the Hechinger's.

"The problem is the not the activity in the center," Trout said. "It's that big vacant spot, the mass that is the old Hechinger's, that gives the whole shopping center a different feel. We're very excited to hear that Morgan is going to take that building down. It will breathe new life into the project."

But Trout isn't sure Northwood will ever be what residents envision. He disputed a study done by the city's planning department that compares the demographics around Northwood as virtually the same as the demographics around Belvedere Square.

Original Northwood versus Homeland.

Northwood draws on residents who live in some middle- and upper-middle-class areas, but it also has a slew of rentals and students. It's a mix that helps the plaza support what might be considered low-end retailers, such as the discount grocery that advertises $1 meat specials, rather than an Italian deli that sells prosciutto for $19.95 a pound.

"To be fair, the community is what the community is," Trout said. "It's an interesting melting pot between the college, the Original Northwood residents and the rental units. It's hard to figure out who you target."

Ken Harris met a violent end two years ago, and his death, as all such killings do, spurred calls for reform. Mourners screamed for justice, for better police enforcement, for getting tough on criminals and gangs and guns. When the politicians came to Northwood to announce their grand plans just weeks after Harris was killed, his mother came and held up a pink sign asking, "Who murdered my child?"

The criminal trial may answer her question.

But the place where her son was killed still stands as a run-down monument to bureaucratic inefficiency. Security is better now, the residents and lawmakers told me, but two people were shot on streets bordering the plaza just over a week ago.

"We cannot let it pine away," Councilwoman Clarke said of plans for a new shopping center.

Out of tragedy comes renewal.

But not here. Not yet.

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