Downtown Beyond the Stadium

ANTERO PIETILA

April 04, 1992|By ANTERO PIETILA

These may be tough times in real estate. But for those with money, tough times offer unparalleled opportunities. Success, of course, is an entirely different matter.

On this morning after the first Orioles game at the new ballpark some suckers with money to burn see dollar signs in everything within walking distance of Camden Station, the MARC commuter-train line and light rail.

Yet sticky questions remain. After all the false starts in commercial redevelopment over the past decade, is a boom finally coming to the area or will this be another bubble that bursts? What about the nearby residential row-house neighborhoods where a number of Reagan-administration officials lost a bundle in speculation. Will those communities finally take off?

Interestingly, these are questions some local and out-of-town investors don't even want to entertain. They are more interested in the future of The Block, the once-thriving concentration of strip-tease and gambling dens, gyms, tattoo parlors, prostitution and other forms of sin along East Baltimore Street north of the Inner Harbor.

Since its heyday in the early 1950s, when 68 establishments had a liquor license within a three-block stroll, The Block has shrunk to two dozen go-go bars and porno shops in the 400 block East Baltimore Street. Most of the properties reportedly are not even owned by flesh merchants but by aging landlords and landladies now basking in retirement sun in Florida.

With Commerce Place, a stately 30-story office high-rise costing $90 million opening next door, pressure is increasing to get rid of the sleaze and outlaw The Block.

Last year, a downtown planning group appointed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called for the redevelopment of East Baltimore Street for office and retail uses. An enabling bill is expected to be introduced in the City Council within the next two months. It is to set a time frame for transition, ban new night-club liquor licenses from the area and spell out other enforcement measures.

''We need retail on Baltimore Street. This will be the next boom area downtown,'' says David Cordish, a nationwide retail developer whose office is in a building he owns in the adjoining area. But nothing will happen as long as The Block stays as it is.

At the present time, the area surrounding The Block is full of visible uncertainty. Virtually all properties opposite Commerce Place are vacant, including the landmark Horn & Horn cafeteria building. Indeed, numerous vacancies pockmark Baltimore Street from Calvert Street to the Fallsway, where both the Brokerage and Fishmarket complexes are bankrupt.

''There are lots of ifs that have to come in place,'' says Daniel P. Henson, senior developer with Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse. Yet there is out-of-town interest in the area because it is just blocks away from the Inner Harbor, the financial district, City Hall and an interstate highway. Within two years, it will also be on a Metro line.

Despite these advantages -- and rents that are a mere fraction of what tenants pay closer to the Inner Harbor -- commercial rental space in the area goes begging. No one wants to be too close to The Block, says Mr. Cordish. If The Block is eliminated, however, ''the municipal district has a tremendous future.''

Within the next few months, some pieces of this redevelopment puzzle may begin falling in place. A new $5 million headquarters for the Legal Aid Bureau will be completed across from the War Memorial at Gay and Lexington streets, along with a multi-level parking garage. Combined with the new Commerce Place, that should add a lot of lunch time foot traffic.

At this stage of the game nobody is talking about razing the current buildings on The Block. Since many of those buildings are quite small, they could be profitably converted into other uses even if no robust economic turnaround materializes. The Block could then house a gamut of businesses from dry cleaners to dentists. There could be some clubs there and restaurants. There could be boutiques, galleries. The mix could be something like what Philadelphia has in its South Street.

Will any of this happen in the near future? Certainly the Schmoke administration, motivated by the downtown task force report, would want to make it happen.

''There are a lot of people now who are taking that report quite literally,'' says Mr. Henson who is studying new uses for the area.

Mr. Cordish, who has his own money invested in properties just outside The Block, is so confident things will turn around he isn't even impatient about his stake. ''I'm waiting, just like everybody else. I'll hold it for the long term.''

Antero Pietila is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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