Developer Proposes Tripling Commercial Space

by Alice Cherbonnier
     WhEN RESIDENTS of the Belvedere Square community said they wanted their shopping center revitalized, they never meant they wanted it enlarged from its existing 100,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet.
      That message came across loud and clear during a marathon meeting of the Belvedere Improvement Association on Monday, May 24. The event, held at Govans Presbyterian Church, attracted over 100 residents and politicians, as well as media representatives.
      The star attraction was an opportunity to hear from developer James Ward about his new proposal to unify and enlarge the shopping district around York Road and Belvedere Avenue. Ward, whose original Belvedere Square project was a popular urban success story until high operating costs and other problems caused a number of tenants to vacate during the past five years, unveiled a proposed $35 million project for Belvedere Square.
      If implemented, it would involve razing houses on Orkney Road, Rosebank Avenue, Belvedere Avenue, and behind where Jerry's Belvedere Tavern now stands; enlarging The Senator Theatre; replacing commercial buildings on the west side of York Road; and greatly expanding parking lots.
      Envisioned new tenants under this plan could conceivably be an 11,000 square foot CVS pharmacy at the northwest corner of York Road and East Northern Parkway, and possibly a Safeway and an Old Navy retail outlet, just north of the existing Staples office supply store.
      Mr. Ward reviewed problems he has had in making the existing Belvedere Square a viable commercial project. Economic realities, he said, drive developers' plans. Before providing financing, banks want to see signed leases from tenants who can be expected to succeed. Often, this means a franchise or chain tenant, because they have set business plans, a commercial track record, and "deep pockets" to keep a venture afloat until it is established. Such businesses typically require larger spaces than can be found in urban neighborhood shopping areas.
      Such businesses are not the sort envisioned when Belvedere Square was designated a Planned Unit Development (PUD) district over 15 years ago. Its funding then, including a federal UDAG grant, was contingent on it being a neighborhood shopping center that could serve, at least in part, as an incubator for local independent businesses.
      Albert Barry, a former city planning official who now works as a planning consultant, has been hired by Mr. Ward to explore how Belvedere Square can be made financially successful. Mr. Barry used a map to show the crowd the options currently being reviewed by Mr. Ward, who owns much of the commercial district and who would, if the plans are implemented, acquire much more of it.
      Then, one by one, speakers lined up to a microphone to give voice to their feelings about the plan. Many whose houses would be torn down under the plan declared they would not sell out. Yvonne Perrette, a 20-year resident on Rosebank Avenue, said, "We'd just be one big huge car lot.... Why not develop residences and bring back Belvedere Square as a neighborhood place?" Addressing the many politicians in the room, she declared "We need commitment from the City that our neighborhood groups aren't going to be mistreated by the development process."
      Barbara Crain, of Orkney Road, said, "We want respect for the whole community. Let's think creatively. We are not totally against a mixture of businesses--we have Staples and Pier One--but we want to be a junction, a little crossroads. We have a community here, and we have an enjoyment of village living. We have charm and authenticity, and charm is viable and profitable. That's what tourists want to see--we're a charming little place for local color..."
      Susan Shorr, of Clearspring Road, declared, "I choose to live in the city specifically to avoid huge suburban mans."
      Though Mr. Ward and Mr. Barry indicated they had discussed the plans with neighborhood residents and businesses, many speakers said no one had yet talked to them. The developer had presented the plans to other area groups before bringing them to Belvedere Square neighbors, the community most affected. "The process is totally wrong," said Michelle LeFaivre, an attorney specializing in community law who lives on Rosebank Avenue. "It shows extraordinary disrespect to present this plan [elsewhere] without bringing it first to our community."
      Judy Kapfharnmer, 27-year resident of Orkney Court, called on elected officials to ensure that any new development meet with neighborhood approval. "Let those who suffer the most determine what they will suffer with," she said, to audience applause.
      The Belvedere neighbors are on the way to getting their wish to have the primary say about what will happen to their commercial district. On Tuesday, May 25, the York Road Planning Council--the umbrella group representing area communities--approved a review process that gives Belvedere neighbors strong input into the planning process--effectively providing them with a veto power over what will happen in their backyard as Mr. Ward's plans evolve.

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This story was published on June 3, 1999.