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Top court hears Angelos’ Superblock case

Top court hears Angelos’ Superblock case

Attorney calls BDC’s

’04 deal ‘more than

a mere sale of land’

M. Albert Figinski, Attorney at Law with the Law Offices of Peter Angelos.

M. Albert Figinski, Attorney at Law with the Law Offices of Peter Angelos.

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s highest court heard arguments Thursday on a case that could set major precedents for the Baltimore Development Corp. and its role in promoting economic development in the city.

The case, 120 West Fayette Street LLP v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, deals with the proposed Superblock redevelopment, an effort to bring a 28-story residential tower with parking and retail attached that is expected to cost more than $100 million to downtown Baltimore’s west side.

In 2004, the BDC selected the New York-based Chera, Feil and Goldman families to redevelop the project. They later added four other New York-based real estate companies, as well as Philadelphia-based consultant Civic Visions LP to their team, known as Lexington Square Partners LLC. Shortly after, the Board of Estimates, the city’s spending panel, whose five members include the mayor and City Council president, approved the sale of the land to the developer.

But an entity owned by high-powered class action litigator and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who owns an office building adjacent to the Superblock site, has challenged the way the project was awarded, saying in a brief that the BDC’s actions were “more than a ‘mere sale of land,’” and that because the effort is a city public works project, should have been competitively bid.

M. Albert Figinski, the attorney from Angelos’ firm who argued the case before the Court of Appeals, said that the BDC approved the deal entirely before handing it off to the Board of Estimates, which approves all large city expenditures and sales of property, for a ceremonial “rubber stamp.”

In January 2008, a city circuit court judge dismissed the suit, which was originally filed in February 2007, saying the Angelos entity did not have standing to bring it. This February, the Court of Appeals ruled that Angelos’ group did have standing, and the case was kicked back to the circuit court, which ruled in August that the Superblock transaction was a land sale, not a public works project.

“If the city can do this by any means they want to, then I’m afraid the [city] charter has no meaning,” Figinski told the court. “If the city can outsource its duties today to the BDC, why can’t it outsource its duties tomorrow to some folks in Pakistan?”

The city, represented by City Solicitor George F. Nilson, who votes on the Board of Estimates, and Chief of Litigation David E. Ralph, said Figinski was mischaracterizing the role of the BDC, which they described as a consultant and advisor to the city, without the power to sell land or develop property.

“Even after exhaustive discovery, [Angelos’ lawyers] have still failed to cite one single case, one single statute … that says that competitive bidding is required for the disposition of land for redevelopment,” Ralph argued. “How can it be public, if a private developer is developing his own private property?”

He cited two sections of the city’s charter and the one part of the state code that permit the city to sell land without a competitive process in the name of the mayor as long as the deal is approved by the Board of Estimates.

Figinski’s arguments, however, succeeded in piquing Chief Judge Robert M. Bell’s interest in the question of the BDC’s role in city business transactions.

“What is the nature of the BDC?” Bell asked Ralph. “Is it a board? A commission? A bureau? An agency? … How does it fit into the charter? Don’t you think that’s the threshold?”

Outside the courtroom, BDC President M.J. “Jay” Brodie emphasized that the Angelos suit could scare off the developer, and that he hoped the court would rule on the case soon. A contract between the city and Lexington Square, which Brodie said has invested $2 million to $3 million in the project, runs out at the end of the year, and at that point the developer could back out of the deal.

“Every developer wants the right to walk away if there are overarching issues,” he said.

The court did not set a timetable for a ruling.