BALANCING NEEDS & WANTS:

Belvedere Sq. Redevelopment
Moves To City Council Phase

by Louise Sheldon
     QUICK: DO THE MATH. You owe $5.8 million to your bank and you need to borrow $1 million more to make your shopping center viable. Your loan will have a 15-year term. How much rent will you have to charge your tenants in order to cover the loan and operating expenses, and make some profit for yourself?
      But wait: Before you do the calculations, add in some additional factors that may influence the result: The neighborhood surrounding the shopping center site would prefer a community-scaled project, rather than “big box” suburban-style stores. The site is in Baltimore City. And your track record with the community isn’t all that great, since you already developed the site once before and things didn’t work out--and that’s putting it mildly.
      Sounds like you should give up on the project and let someone else with a clean slate do the job, doesn’t it? But you can’t do that, because you’ve still got a big loan to pay off, so you have to make another effort to make the project work.
      Such is the situation right now for James A. Ward and his Belvedere Square development, at York Road and Belvedere Avenue. Everyone involved--from neighborhood residents to city officials to area businesses--agrees that the shopping center, once a city showcase for urban redevelopment, needs to be revitalized. The question is, how is this to be done? That’s where the disagreements are. Neighbors are nostalgic for the pleasant ambience of Belvedere Square in its successful years. They realize things can’t be the same, because of changed economic circumstances, but they want the project to be as much as possible like it once was.
      Mr. Ward and his planning consultant, Al Barry of AB Associates, believe the only way the shopping center can survive and prosper is if it has two major “anchor” tenants, such as a Metro supermarket and a Walgreen’s drug store.
      They have scaled back on ideas advanced last May that alarmed neighbors because they called for expanding the size of the shopping center by tearing down area residences. The outcry against such a move was strong. In November, a charette was held, during which over 100 persons sat down to thrash out their ideas and aspirations for the shopping district and its surrounding area.
      Those involved expected there would be further discussion at the community level before anything was decided upon. But Third District City Council member Robert Curran, over objections from the Belvedere Square Action Group, filed City Council Bill No. 14 on January 24, calling for an amendment to the original Planned Unit Development (PUD) for the project.
      Moving the issue to the Baltimore City Council will put the project into a more public city-wide forum. There will be land use committee hearings and planning commission hearings, all of which will be open to the public.
      “Why is it critical now?” asks Catherine Evans, president of the Belvedere Improvement Association (BIA), questioning the need for such fast-tracking. She points out that, while the Belvedere Square Action Group--a consortium of area neighborhoods and groups--has been meeting weekly to discuss alternatives for the shopping center, neither James Ward nor Al Barry has asked to meet just with the BIA, the community that would be most impacted by the project.
      “Nobody knows what it’s like to be ‘on the ground’ but us,” she says. “It’s idiotic to put in stores that would generate high-density traffic here.” For this reason, she says, the community would favor a boutique-style supermarket over today’s mega-supermarkets. “It’s all a question of scale,” she says.
      The current plan offered by Mr. Ward calls for a supermarket where the south building now sits, with a large pharmacy on the north side. Seth Harry, one of several architects who has spoken with the Action Group, suggested that the placements be switched, and that the supermarket face the Chili’s restaurant with ingress and egress available from Northern Parkway.
      This revision to the plan would please Julia Pierson, treasurer of the York Road Partnership, a loosely organized consortium whose organizational members, after taking part in Action Group discussions, have decided to go their separate ways on the plan. Ms. Pierson, executive director of GEDCO--Govans Economic Development Corporation--says GEDCO has not made up its mind about what should be done with Belvedere Square. “We plan to listen,” she said, “at the public hearings. We have to make them [the developer] answer the tough questions. But there has to be movement on this. We don’t want to wait another year [for change to occur].” Ideally, she says, “I really like the urban streetscape ideas Seth Harry had. Personally, I’d like to see if we can make the suburban box work in a community setting. I’d like to make it possible that existing stores stay there, like Greg’s Bagels and the cleaner’s.”
      The Rev. Jack Sharp, of Govans Presbyterian Church, said it is not correct to say that he or his church support Mr. Ward’s plan. “We do support Councilman Curran’s plan to discuss it in the City Council and hold public hearings on it, and move it forward.” Personally, he says, “I’d like it to come back to what it was. I know it can’t be the same, but we need a plan large enough to survive, but small enough not to overwhelm the neighborhood, and attractive enough so our church members would enjoy going there. I’m hoping we’ll see it stabilized and strengthened.”
      According to Ms. Pierson, the Govanstowne Business Association (GBA) has already endorsed Mr. Ward’s plan. Susan Hodges, GBA’s executive director, was unavailable for comment.
      One thing is certain: if Mr. Ward were not the developer, the project would be going more smoothly. “I have no illusions,” said Mr. Barry. “If [developer Bill] Struever were involved, things would be different.”
      But until Mr. Ward has a viable project to sell to another developer, he can’t get out of it even if he wants to. Meanwhile, the loan clock is ticking.



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This story was published on February 2, 2000.