PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE:

CITYMALL

by John V. Brain
     THE DEVELOPER is presenting his plan for a new mall: it has large stores and small boutiques, restaurants, a cinema complex, spacious tree-lined avenues, acres of parking. Nothing unusual about that, you might think--but this developer’s dream is the subject of intense controversy because it is located not in far-away fields soon to become suburbia, but in the heart of Baltimore City.
       What has outraged local residents is that the plan being presented shows their neat middle-class homes bulldozed and built over, sacrificed to enable the developer to construct a shopping center large enough to attract customers away from competing malls in Hunt Valley, Owings Mills, and White Marsh.
       It is, he notes, an example of a new trend back to the city and away from the outer suburbs, and fits in nicely with the idea of smart growth in areas to be revitalized, as opposed to endless sprawl.

       NOT A BLIGHTED AREA: But the residents are not convinced. They see no reason why their homes should be sacrificed to any grand plan and vow to fight it with every means at their disposal. For this is not like an expressway to be bulldozed through a blighted urban neighborhood, where local government can condemn property and tell the poor to move on, but a stable, well-organized community with spacious homes, well-tended gardens and great trees standing long before any homes were built.
       Centered around York Road and Belvedere Avenue, this controversy is exacerbated by the failure of the same developer to make a success of the present Belvedere Square shopping plaza, which he built a dozen or so years ago adjacent to the historic--but abandoned--Hochschild-Kohn department store.
       Opened amid fanfare in the late 1980s, Belvedere Square has seen almost all of its original tenants move away, many complaining about rising rents and lack of maintenance, so that it now stands half-empty.
       In particular, the popular Belvedere Square Market is now long defunct. It was once a flourishing mini-mall where merchants sold fresh fruit and vegetables, imported foods, baked goods, flowers, meats, and seafood, attracting upscale customers from far and wide.

       FEARS CAUSE FREEZE: How can a developer who has allowed such a promising project to fail be trusted to launch a project three times as large, disgruntled residents ask. Local politicians assure them that such a city mall plan is dead on arrival, but money talks, and meanwhile residents have put their own plans on hold and the entire neighborhood is in the deep freeze.
       Aside from the particulars of Belvedere Square and the controversy surrounding its developer, this proposal raises important questions about city revitalization. The one great advantage of suburban malls is that they can be planned on a grand scale in uncluttered farmland, as contrasted with the random strip development characteristic of cities.
       Starting in the early 1970s, the two-mile section of York Road in which Belvedere Square is located was the subject of a concerted effort at revitalization under the auspices of the York Road Planning Area Committee (YRPAC), which labored to attract merchants, improve the appearance of storefronts, and work with area residents businesses, churches and other organizations.
       The local business association assisted by getting members to agree to form a Retail Business District, chipping in to improve the commercial environmnent. Yet despite these concerted efforts, commercial revitalization has been an uphill battler as local stores one by one gave up and moved out to the malls and more affluent suburbs, or simply closed. All the hardware stores, for examples have closed down, succumbing to the vast “category killer” warehouse stores beyond the beltway. Some new stores have opened, to be sure, but they are mostly branches of national chains, and many smaller stores are now vacant.
       Maybe, as this developer claims, the city needs a suburban-sized mall with all its amenities to attract magnet stores and infuse new life into the older suburbs. But how can such vast areas be opened to redevelopment without destroying homes and alienating residents?
       I recently drove downtown through some of East Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods, infinitely more depressed than York and Belvedere. There, entire city blocks were boarded up, with numerous gaps where houses had been demolished. Yet some were occupied, their residents grimly holding on.

       WHERE WILL THE POOR GO? How are such neighborhoods to be revitalized, if not bulldozed to the ground and redeveloped as upscale communities whose residents can afford to pay the taxes all cities need to survive? How are they to attract the affluent back to the cities unless they can offer all the amenities and lifestyle of the suburbs?
       The blight suddenly ends at the waterfront, where elegant townhomes and condominiums replace the delapidated row houses. But can the affluence they attest to be extended throughout the city to Patterson Park and beyond? And where will the poor go then? Moved on out to opportunity?
       Meanwhile, York and Belvedere girds for a fight. City Malls maybe, but not over our backyard.


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This story was published on August 4, 1999.