For the Howard Park Civic Association, the news on Thursday afternoon was as good as it was unexpected: Rite Aid had backed down from its demand for a $600,000 payment from the city to lift a covenant that had stalled development of a full-service grocery store, Klein's ShopRite, in the neighborhood.
"Rite Aid signed, sealed, and delivered the deal we were trying to get, at no cost," says Joyce Smith, executive secretary of the Howard Park Civic Association's board, at 4 p.m. on Thursday. "I got a call about an hour ago."
Organizers of a boycott of the national pharmacy chain transformed a planned protest at the Rite Aid at 3804 Liberty Heights Ave. Saturday into a victory celebration.
"We have been working on this project since I represented this district as a member of the City Council," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "Long-time residents of Howard Park have been supportive and patient throughout the process, and we look forward to celebrating this new addition soon with the entire community."
In a statement, Rite Aid said it "sincerely appreciates the Howard Park community's desire for a supermarket, and in fact, the company has never been opposed to a supermarket in Howard Park. Rite Aid's sole interest in this matter has been to protect and support its core business-pharmacy-as the company's closest store is located less than a mile from the property on which Rite Aid holds a restrictive covenant." The chain store added that it "remains committed to serving the health and wellness needs of its Howard Park customers, and looks forward to doing so in the future."
It was a rare clear victory for community protest-even before the planned month-long boycott with rolling pickets got fully underway. Kim Trueheart, a resident and activist, started picketing a week early.
She says the boycott idea grew "organically" from discussions with the civic association. "While I personally stood up, starting last Saturday [April 8] . . . it was not me alone," she says. "It just happened that I had the time and the wherewithal to stand in front of the Rite Aid for seven and a half hours on Saturday, when I turned away 25 people; three hours on Sunday, when I turned away seven customers; and two hours on Monday, when I turned away nine customers."
For decades Howard Park, a neighborhood in the Liberty Heights Avenue corridor in Northwest Baltimore, had a Super Pride grocery store. That closed in 1999. The next year Rite Aid sold an adjacent, 4-acre parcel to a tennis-shoe warehouse, says Preston Greene, president of the Howard Park Civic Association.
"Rite Aid abandoned that site to move to the location a mile away," he says. Rite Aid, which had been there since 1994, added a covenant to the 4-acre property on or soon after the sale to the new owner. The covenant "prohibits the sale of pharmacy items, health and beauty aids from that lot or in connection with that lot, forever," Greene says.
Rumor was that the covenant was added after the land transferred-after it was known that the community was trying to get a supermarket, he adds. "You would think that a restricted covenant would have come out in the title search."
But, he says, the city's first offer to the community was for a smaller supermarket "consistent with Super Pride. That was undersized, underserved. So the then-president of the civic association led us to the idea of a first-class, full-service market so it wouldn't die an agonizing death in five years."
As a full-service grocery store these days means an in-house pharmacy, that brought the covenant into play.
After discovering it, the city appraised the covenant's value at $15,000-or one-tenth the value of the land. Rite Aid wanted $600,000, the Baltimore Brew reported, citing sources.
"It is not uncommon for corporations to put a land-use restriction in properties they sell-to control, or at least to somewhat manage, competition," Greene says. "We're a food desert, and we have needs."
Of course, it is also not uncommon for property holders in an area slated for redevelopment to suddenly decide that their holdings are much more valuable than they ever thought-or for them to actually be so. Greene says the city spent $7 million assembling the land for the supermarket. It sold that land to the Klein family for $2 million.
"All the owners walked away with generous settlements," Greene says, "including moving expenses. On the 4600 block of Maine Avenue, I remember one guy was complaining. He said 'I finally got this place the way I wanted.' Well, I talked to him later and he was happy."
On April 11, City Solicitor George Nilson told City Paper the matter had "been resolved amicably to everybody's apparent satisfaction." Instead of $600,000 or even $15,000, the price was zero, the lawyer said-though the covenant is technically still in effect. "It technically wasn't a termination," Nilson said. "It is an agreement to a significant modification of the covenant-it does not prevent a stand-alone grocery store of 40,000 feet or more."
The covenant "would still have some restraining effect if they want[ed] to build a stand-alone pharmacy," Nilson said, but it would not affect the planned ShopRite project, and "it's not an obstacle if another grocery store owner came along and stepped into the shoes of ShopRite."
Nilson suggested the community pressure made the difference. "I think, at the end of the day, the Rite Aid people said 'Let's not be penny-wise and pound-foolish,'" Nilson said. "'Let's not be the problem [and] maybe the community would think better of us.'"
The company's change of heart came fairly late. An April 11 press release announced a "Health and Wellness" event with "free health screenings and product samples" at the company's refurbished store on the 3800 Block of East Lombard Street to occur at the same time as the planned protest. And store managers in Liberty Heights behaved the way most retail managers do when confronted by anything out of the ordinary.
"They did call the cops on me twice," Trueheart says, recounting her three days of protest. First the store's manager needed to be told by a police supervisor that the sidewalk was public property, then called police again to say Trueheart was blocking traffic by walking on the sidewalk across the driveway into the parking lot. "They responded with five police cars," says Trueheart, who spent a night in jail earlier this year after trying to talk to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at City Hall. "They did not confront me-they just conferred with the Rite Aid people."
Trueheart says she is gratified by the outcome. "It feels so good. This was a lesson for a lot of people," she says. "The lesson is that freedom of speech, nonviolent protest, can occur."