Jeweler touts gem of downtown City urged to build tax base by welcoming exclusive shops.

October 09, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

For Stephen Weinstein, the southernmost blocks of Calvert, Light and Charles streets on the outskirts of the glittering Inner Harbor are a diamond in the rough, an under-appreciated jewel of commercial real estate.

Encore Books recently opened on the corner of Calvert and Lombard streets as proof that the area remains viable for retail. Nearby, the 28-story addition to the IBM building and the construction of the 30-story Commerce Place tower add to the area's sense of potential.

But a short distance away the Rage, a bar that had male strippers as its featured performers last week, betrays a more tawdry side of commerce along these corridors. The police officers who once directed traffic and patrolled the area are gone, replaced by professional crossing guards. The crosswalks are commanded by vigilant and uncompromising meter maids.

For now, the imperfections are more than Weinstein is accustomed to but not so bad that he can walk away. Unlike many other retailers who have abandoned the city, Weinstein says he is determined to stay in the store his father and a partner established more than 50 years ago.

That store, Dahne & Weinstein jewelers in the first block of S. Calvert St., is one of the most exclusive of its kind in the Baltimore area.

Last month, Dahne & Weinstein opened a Baltimore County location on Falls Road, a move that Weinstein says he resisted for years. The 3,100-square-foot showroom at the Greenspring Inn was designed by Baltimore interior designer Nancy Foreman to have the low-key elegance of a Madison Avenue salon.

The less stately, yet more established downtown store will remain.

Still, it's no wonder Weinstein feels conflicted. He's accustomed to the very best.

The only Baltimore-area store to carry Tiffany's jewelry and Chanel timepieces, Dahne & Weinstein occupies a rarefied niche among independent jewelry stores.

The shop's Jean Vitau pens, featured on the inside cover of the October issue of Town & Country magazine, start at $3,000 and sparkle in sapphire, diamond, peridot and ruby, arranged in the shapes of tropical fish.

A Van Cleef and Arpels ring, with 60-carat aquamarine, is a $60,000 colossus from an estate. Of course, if you don't like something previously owned, the store's Kurt Wayne-designed sapphire and diamond necklace is a $178,000, never-worn eye blinder. "You could make the same piece for half the price, but it would be like putting a Chevrolet engine in a Rolls Royce," Weinstein comments. The novice rarely questions.

The doors to Dahne & Weinstein are locked even when the store is open, a precaution against robbers and drug dealers. Visitors are buzzed in. It is the price of being an urban entrepreneur -- with extremely expensive merchandise.

Still, Weinstein says, "the city is great."

"I enjoy being downtown more than I enjoy being out at Greenspring Valley," he says. "There are more restaurants, I can go watch the boats in the harbor. Downtown is vibrant and alive.

"But it's got problems," he adds.

Principal among them is a may or who appears indifferent to downtown problems, he says.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who made it a campaign pledge to focus more attention on the city's schools and neighborhoods, has hurt downtown by taking police officers off the streets and by not addressing the area's parking problems, Weinstein says.

"You don't improve the living conditions of the poor by destroying your business base," says Weinstein, arguing that the jobs provided by downtown business are the great equalizer between the haves and have-nots.

"When you have a kid that needs work and that kid can get a job downtown, then he has an opportunity to become an elitist, too," he says.

Schmoke, he adds, is missing an opportunity to expand on the success of the Inner Harbor by turning the southern portions of Calvert, St. Paul and Charles streets into an exclusive business district, for high-end stores and their clientele.

"Part of the city's business base should be the high end," Weinstein explains. "It shouldn't be all McDonald's and Polack Johnnies."

Rachel Edds, deputy director for city planning, says the best strategy for helping downtown retail is for the city to continue its support of downtown office development.

"What the city can do is focus on those economic development activities that will attract and maintain office employment, tourists and visitors business, all of which then stimulates retail," she says.

Weinstein is optimistic. "There's something called critical mass, and the critical mass for progress in the city is there," he says.

There's one other reason for Weinstein to remain. He owns the five-story building Dahne & Weinstein occupies. Other shops lease space on the ground floor and five jewelry makers are on the upper levels. In the end, his building may be the most priceless gem of all.

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