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Shuttered for decades, Station North landmark set to reopen

By Memorial Day, one of Baltimore’s culinary landmarks will once again be seating diners.

Developer Ernst Valery surveys the architecturally rich second-floor space of The Chesapeake Restaurant, where Station North Development Partners LLC plans to build a speakeasy bar and office space.

The Chesapeake Restaurant, located at the corner of Charles and Lanvale streets at the gateway to the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, is poised to reopen its doors under new ownership after decades of vacancy and controversy.

Plans for the site also include a speakeasy bar on the second level, new business incubator offices and about 80 market-rate apartments.

Ernst Valery, a part of Station North Development Partners LLC, said Tuesday about $3.5 million has been spent so far to rebuild and renovate the Chesapeake and add a small market and café in 9,000 square feet of first-floor space. The developers obtained federal historic tax credits to help fund the project that was financed by The Reinvestment Fund, based in Philadelphia.

The restaurant’s signature will be a large, white, marble-top bar flanked by dining booths and tables. The café will open early for breakfast and have a space available for private meetings.

“It had been vacant and closed for 30 years,” Valery said.

Built in 1905, the property was once one of Baltimore’s premiere restaurant spots, where the city’s first grilled steaks, chops and Caesar salads were served. It has even been mentioned in the retro-television hit “Mad Men.”

But it fell victim to neglect and blight after it closed in the late 1980s. Over the past two decades, the site had become the focus of a turf battle between the city and its former owner, local attorney Robert A. Sapero.

In 2005, the city attempted to gain control of the Chesapeake via a “quick-take” eminent domain procedure. The state’s highest court sided with Sapero in 2007, and the city purchased the property in 2008 for $2.5 million.

Meanwhile, the decades were taking their toll.

“It was sort of sad looking,” said James “Buzz” Cusack, owner of the Charles Theatre that is located in the same block.

The city sold the property to Valery and his partners in 2010 for $500,000 and made part of the deal a revenue-sharing agreement with the Baltimore Development Corp. Under that agreement, the city will receive 5 percent of gross revenues to a total of $1 million and 2.5 percent of gross revenues after that until another $1 million has been collected, making the total sale price $2.5 million.

Plans for a fine-dining restaurant suffered a blow in July 2011, when restaurateur Qayum Karzai ended his relationship with the partnership. The BDC’s then-president, M.J. “Jay” Brodie, said the developers were still “fully engaged” and the project remained “on track,” with plans to open the following year.

On Tuesday, as workers readied drywall for painting and electricians wired the building, Valery toured the first and second floors and said the new Chesapeake is expected to offer a local farm-to-table menu when it opens in mid-May.

After that, the second phase of the project will launch, adding 20,000 square feet of office space for small business incubation on the second floor and 80 apartments on a site behind the building, now a surface parking lot.