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Developer's rotting buildings link Jeannette, Baltimore

| Monday, Aug. 30, 2010

Every time Dennis Livingston looks across the street from his Baltimore home, he sees the decaying remains of a garment factory owned by New York developer Abraham Zion.

Zion is involved in a legal battle with Baltimore officials who want him to demolish the hulking eyesore that mars a burgeoning arts district.

Although 224 miles separate Baltimore, a city of about 637,000, and Jeannette, a city of about 10,000 residents, they face a similar impediment to economic development -- 85-year-old "Abe" Zion.

In Jeannette, officials have been trying to get Zion to deal with the crumbling Jeannette Glass factory, closed since 1983.

City officials are scheduled to meet today with Zion in New York to discuss possible remedies. Zion was not available this week to comment, said a secretary in his New York office.

In Baltimore, a four-story building with broken windows covered with plywood and sheet metal ruins the view for Livingston, an artist and community activist. Trash and fallen chunks of brick and concrete litter the perimeter of the building Zion has owned for 25 years.

"That building looms over the area and is a definite impediment to market development," said Joseph McNeely, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, a community development organization.

In 2004, Zion told Baltimore officials he planned to reopen the 140,000-square-foot plant to make clothing and to operate a machine shop and marble polishing business.

The building sits in the heart of the Station North Arts District, named for its proximity to Penn Station. The once-industrial area is filled with former factories transformed into galleries, artists' lofts and theaters.

The exception is the former LeBow Brothers building.

It once housed a business founded by Benjamin LeBow at the turn of the 20th century. It once employed 1,000 workers who manufactured clothing for lines including After Six and stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Barney's.

Zion's promises to Baltimore to revive the building echo promises Jeannette officials have heard since the 1990s about the Jeannette Glass complex, where 1,500 workers once crafted dishware.

Now the 32-acre site between Chambers and Bullitt avenues has rusting buildings that mar the view for new homes built along South Sixth Street as part of a $31 million redevelopment.

Zion has promised to reopen, redevelop or donate the former factory but has never followed through, say city and Westmoreland County officials.

John Skiavo, president of the Economic Growth Connection, met with Zion five times in New York to discuss proposals. Nothing materialized.

Now, Mayor Robert Carter and Solicitor Scott Avolio are set to meet with Zion to discuss reopening the former landmark.

Skiavo said there is little that can be done because the soil is contaminated with arsenic and mercury, a lethal legacy from decades of glass making at the plant that opened in 1888.

He said the cleanup would cost untold hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it would take at least two years to obtain a special permit from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Livingston said he traveled to New York once to meet with Zion to seek help with a decaying building. "I like him personally. Professionally, I despise him," he said. "It was a total waste of time."

McNeeley said a state senator wants to build a school on the Baltimore site to teach students fashion and design.

State bond money is available, but "Zion has never wanted to sell the building," McNeely said. "He said he's willing to be a partner, but nobody has been able to meet his terms."

Baltimore officials cited Zion for unsafe conditions, and he owes $58,000 in fines, said Cheron Porter, director of communications for Housing and Community Development.

"We got a lot of support from the community," Porter said. "They were tired of it. It was ripe for crime and vagrants."

The LeBow site was used in the filming of the gritty HBO crime series, "The Wire," she said.

The interior of the building seemed frozen in time until Zion cleaned it out last year. Dust-covered suits and coats hung on racks. Decades of grime covered rotary dial telephones, old payroll records and antiquated sewing machines. The building lured urban explorers who roamed the ghostly building to take photographs.

Last year, Baltimore officials passed a new ordinance to try to force property owners to more quickly rehabilitate blighted property. Zion agreed to redevelop by last fall. When he failed to make progress, the city cited him for contempt in Baltimore Circuit Court, said Jason Hessler, director of code enforcement.

At a hearing in December, Zion and his attorney failed to appear, so the city appointed a receiver to sell the vacant property, he said.

One House At A Time, a nonprofit organization, was appointed and scheduled an auction. Director Emily Aracil said Zion filed a lawsuit and the Maryland Supreme Court halted the sale while his appeal is heard.

Hessler said third parties are interested in redeveloping the site. That would alleviate the need to raze the building at a cost of $500,000 to $750,000, he said.

Hessler said Zion was offered $6 million several years ago but rejected the offer.

"If Zion loses the appeal, the court will not accept any deal that allows him to remain in control of the property," he said. "I don't think he'll listen to anything. The only way is to get him out of the picture."

Carter said he can relate to the frustration of Baltimore officials.

"I feel their pain, believe me," Carter said. "When I go to see him, I'm not going with puppy-dog eyes. Either I will walk away with some definite plan of action or learn what he's going to do with the property. I'm not going in blind."

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