Looking for Closure
Stalled Development Puts Mamie's Café Proprietor In Dire Straits
When Brenda Weber opened Mamie's Café in Hampden 10 years ago, a police captain at the old Northern District Police Station a few blocks away tried to warn her off. Hampdenites don't take to newcomers, he advised. But they took to Mamie's.
Whether it was the Wednesday night lobster or the home-cooked meals or maybe the homey atmosphere--jam-packed with antique furniture and floor-to-ceiling pictures of family, neighbors, and friends--Hampden embraced the restaurant.
"It was a `go-to' place for a lot of people in the neighborhood," says Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, a co-owner of two Hampden businesses, Atomic Books and Atomic Pop, and an erstwhile City Paper contributor. He says Mamie's reminded him of his great-grandmother's house. That's just what Weber was going for--Mamie was her beloved grandmother, and the original owner of a lot of those antiques. Ray says he's gotten a lot of calls and e-mails about Mamie's since Weber closed her doors at the end of 2005, when the landlord for the building it was located in for a decade refused to give her a lease for the space.
Weber says she's been largely unable to answer the phone. She has trouble sleeping, she says, and couldn't get out of bed for months after the restaurant closed. She sobs when she talks about it.
"I think the hardest thing for me to do was to pack everything," says Weber, who opened the restaurant with money she'd saved from waitressing while raising her four sons. "Every nickel I worked for, I sunk into Mamie's. And it wasn't easy, but I always beat the odds. Sometimes you complain, but I always loved what I did."
Weber says she never had a lease for the restaurant's space, which was on the lower level of an old movie theater in the middle of West 36th Street, aka the Avenue. When she asked for one, right as real estate values in Hampden were shooting skyward, the owner of the building told her he was looking for a more upscale restaurant to fill the space. So Weber found a new location for her restaurant a few blocks away in the old police station on Keswick Road. It was under renovation and soon to be completed. Or so she thought.
The old Northern District Police Station, rechristened the Hampden Village Centre, was scheduled to open in September 2004 as retail and office space. It remains unfinished. It was purchased from the city by a pair of developers in 2003 with a $475,000 loan from the city and an 18-month deadline. As relationships between the developers and the community have soured, the city has granted extensions. The current opening date is September of this year.
After more than a year spent waiting for her new space to open, Weber has given up. A $250,000 mortgage she took out on her house--to pay for blueprints for the new space, and moving and storage for all those antiques--is spent, and she has put the Jarrettsville home up for sale to pay it off.
Stanley Keyser, the head of Keyser Development Corp., is half of the development team responsible for the police station. The other half, Wendy Blair of WL Blair Development, did not return phone calls for this article.
"It's like a fine wine," Keyser says of his project. "You can't drink it before it's time. You have to make sure everything is properly prepared. That's what this building is. . . . It will happen in time."
Douglas Kington, the listing agent for the property, says it has one lease other than Weber's on the building with the Community Law Center, which held a grand-opening party last September and, according to Kington and Keyser, will move in next month.
Both men say they are in the final stages of discussion with four other tenants. Both men declined to name them.
"Historic renovations are among the toughest development projects there are," Kington says. "This is the oldest continually occupied police station in the country. You never know what you're going to get."
What they got, Kington and Keyser say, were underground fuel tanks, five of them, when they were only expecting two. Kington says the city didn't tell the developers the tanks were there. The city says the developers should have been prepared.
"There were tanks in the ground from the old police station," says Phil Croskey, a director with the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), the city's economic-development agency. "That building is over 100 years old. There's things you're going to find. It's not as simple as going in and painting the wall and putting new carpet in. The prevailing fact here is that I don't think sufficient due diligence was done from the start. When you go into a building that old, you've got to take into account, things are going to pop up."
Croskey says the BDC would have been willing to help Weber, but that the restaurateur lacked a business plan to take to banks. Keyser says he and Kington helped Weber develop a plan, even recommended banks. He says that while delays may have played a part, the real problem is Weber's lack of money.
"She didn't have the necessary capital to finance a restaurant," Keyser says. "We found that out when we developed the plans."
Weber says she's glad she didn't apply for more loans. She says she has enough trouble with the ones she has.
Seventh District City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway has been working with neighbors of the police station to see that the project gets done.
"I wish I knew what was going on with the police station," Conaway says. "I know there are things that the City Council and the community members have been told, but it seems like time after time there's always something--some delay, or some reason the project cannot move forward, or a change in financing. Quite honestly, I call it the northern disaster."
"It's really been a headache and an eyesore for quite some time," says Kathleen Talty, who lives across the street from the police station and heads the Wyman Park Community Association. Last month she wrote an article for the community newsletter last month titled "Northern District Project--a story of broken promises."
"It's the only piece of economic development in my neighborhood," she says. "And it has languished. The developer says he's run into problems, but he's a person who claims to have been a developer for 30-odd years. I have little sympathy."
Councilwoman Conaway and the BDC's Croskey both say that the city has considered taking the building back from Keyser and Blair, but doing so would start the whole lengthy process all over again, and they want to see it finished.
"When you meet the developer he comes across as being sincere, and you want to believe what he's saying," Conaway says. "But after a while it becomes, `Don't tell me another story, please.' . . . You get tired of it."
Keyser says the police station project is the only one he is currently working on, and that he is devoting his time to finishing it. Until 2004 he was a partner and resident agent for another BDC-backed project--the $11 million renovation of a post office building near Penn Station. He was replaced in that role by Kenneth Banks of Banks Contracting, which according to court records is suing Keyser for $57,848 in unpaid invoices related to the Northern District project. Although court records indicate the case is active, Keyser says it has been resolved. Another contractor, AWA Mechanical, is seeking a mechanic's lien on the property. According to an affidavit, it has not been paid for $95,444 worth of plumbing work on the project. Other court records indicate that Keyser has not responded in that case. He says it's "still there." As of press time, neither Banks nor AWA responded to phone calls seeking comment for this article.
Wendy Blair, whom Keyser describes as a full partner in the Hampden Village Centre project, last year received a $5 million loan from Baltimore Community Lending, a nonprofit group chaired by city housing director Paul T. Graziano. The money is for a downtown historic redevelopment on Howard Street overseen by the Baltimore Development Corp., which worked with Community Lending to secure the funding. Blair and her partner in the Howard Street project also received $650,000 from the city to purchase the properties and help with construction costs, and the city agreed to fund $600,000 worth of demolition of nonhistoric buildings on the site.
Blair's signature appears on the loan agreement for the old Northern District Police Station and the land-disposition agreement with the city. She helped sell the project to community groups, and the sign outside the construction site reads "A historic renovation by Keyser Development Corporation and WL Blair Development, LLC."
City officials say she isn't very involved in the Hampden project.
"I don't believe Wendy is taking the lead on that project," Conaway says. "She attended meetings early on, but in the past year she hasn't really been on the scene, at least not on this project."
"I can't speak for Wendy," says BDC's Croskey. "But to Wendy's defense, she's really a 10 percent partner--a very, very minority partner. . . . To her defense, I don't think it's fair to penalize Wendy, when she's a minority partner in the project, when really Stan is responsible for the day-to-day operations."
Weber says she isn't sure when, where, or even if Mamie's will reopen. She says she wants her customers and employees to know she's sorry.
"To this day they still call me," she says. "Some days I can't take their calls because I cry and I miss them. And when they tell you that every Sunday they keep you in their prayers and the church prays for you and `when are you coming back?' It's not a business anymore. It's a part of your life that you've lost. What can anybody take from me that they haven't already taken? My heart is broken because I don't know what to do."
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