City core needs residents, not tourists

JACQUES KELLY

August 18, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

There is a sadness about the bus loads of summertime visitors to Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

I wish the people strolling the promenades lived downtown, maybe at Saratoga Street and Park Avenue, not Vineland, N.J., and Doylestown, Pa.

We've made great advances building and selling the harbor as a kind of urban Ocean City, but what happens when September comes and the numbers of tourists dwindle?

While Baltimore has been able to captivate the national sports media with sellout crowds at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, we have not been able to build a truly strong core of downtown residents.

I blame a flawed, systemic error in the city's overall planning. The urban renewal spending orgies of the 1970s were never truly intended to bring residents back to downtown neighborhoods. Tourism, street fairs, dolphin shows, professional sports and promoting conventions won out. Maybe we had too much of the City Fair.

In short, Baltimore has created a recreational Inner Harbor, but the city lacks a downtown geared toward a middle-class population.

The potential is there. There are blocks of vacant and underutilized buildings all along Howard, Monument, Madison, Chase, Eutaw, Saratoga, Liberty, Baltimore and Lombard streets and Park Avenue. They have the potential to make splendid residences. Other cities have proven that areas of former department stores, loft buildings and warehouses can become productive, thriving neighborhoods.

And Baltimore has demonstrated that when the city has the will to rebuild a neighborhood, the way can be found.

The city has shown that neighborhoods can be strengthened and occasionally built from scratch. Probably the best example of a thriving, expanding and healthy downtown location is South Baltimore-Federal Hill, with all its component neighborhoods -- Otterbein, Harbor Walk, Riverside Park and Locust Point.

There were those who complained when the city spent millions landscaping streets in Otterbein. These improvements made the neighborhood appealing. There was a certain tone established and people wanted to move there.

You'll not see many tourists milling about at the corner of Lee and Hanover streets or Warren and William streets in South Baltimore. But these intersections are situated in fine lived-in areas that give the city permanency, health and vitality. There's no artificial tourist-sell here. It isn't necessary.

If it can happen in South Baltimore, it can happen along the Howard Street corridor, where the potential exists to knit Bolton Hill to Mount Vernon and to the old warehouse-loft district to the west of the Baltimore Arena.

And it all need not be for millionaires and childless yuppies, either. Good city neighborhoods have a mix of incomes, races and businesses.

It was clearly a mistake that so many of the 19th century warehouses that once stood along Camden, Eutaw and Lombard streets near Oriole Park and the Convention Center were razed in the 1970s.

These buildings could have been renovated and brought back to life. And would it have done the city any harm if we had allowed some of our longtime merchants to remain in their traditional locations? Should they have been kicked out in the name of urban renewal? No.

I groan every time the city and state get all worked up over some new sports initiative. People will kiss the ground at Russell and Hamburg streets if Baltimore gets a National Football League franchise. When built, that stadium will sell out instantly.

Good. So be it. But how about equal time for making downtown what it ought to be, a decent place for people to live in?

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