Merchants rail against ban on cars


August 26, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

While city officials and planners ponder options for rejuvenating Baltimore's Howard Street corridor -- such as moving Festival Hall there or transforming it to an "avenue of the arts" -- some of its current denizens say they know exactly what would help most.

The head of the Market Center Merchants Association says he and many other merchants believe the way to bring people back to Howard Street is to bring cars back to the blocks from which they have been banned since the early 1980s.

Some merchants would also like to see cars return to Lexington Street, now a pedestrian-only mall from Liberty Street to Eutaw Street.

Howard Street has been closed to cars on the two blocks from Fayette Street to Saratoga Street since construction began several years ago on the state's light-rail line. Before that, even larger portions of Howard Street were closed to cars when the corridor was designated a buses-only "transit mall" in the early 1980s.

From a merchant's point of view, eliminating cars was "a horrible mistake," said Milt Rosenbaum, owner of Hosiery World at 211 W. Saratoga St. and president of the merchants association.

"I'm not saying light rail was a horrible mistake, but the decision to make Howard Street buses-only in the early '80s was. It was a mistake then, and it's a mistake now, and it needs to be rectified."

The idea of bringing cars back to Howard Street was raised during a recent half-day planning session at the Baltimore Grand, where city officials met with about 80 property owners, merchants and others to discuss ways to enliven the area around Lexington Market.

Mr. Rosenbaum and other participants said that a broad cross-section of those attending expressed support for the suggestion.

"Something has to be done," he said. "You have too much valuable property sitting dormant on Howard Street. If what it takes to bring people back to Howard Street is to bring vehicles back, let's give it a shot."

Mr. Rosenbaum said the problem for merchants is that many people don't use light rail or the buses on Howard Street, and rarely visit the corridor.

And many people who come downtown by car intentionally avoid Howard Street because they know they have to take a detour eventually, he said.

Bringing cars back would "lend a perception of activity, of something happening," he said. "People have a terrible fear of being on an empty street."

City officials say the brainstorming session with merchants was part of a continuing effort to find ways to rejuvenate the corridor. The city is also studying the idea of moving Festival Hall to the Market Center area.

One public official who is staunchly opposed to bringing cars back to Howard Street is John A. Agro Jr., the new administrator of the Mass Transit Administration.

Mr. Agro said his agency feels strongly that automobiles should not occupy the same lane as light rail trains because of the chance that they would break down or that drivers would have accidents or stop temporarily, holding up the light-rail trains coming behind them.

"You can't mix automobile traffic with light-rail vehicles. It would be an unacceptable condition for us. It isn't operationally feasible," he said.

Mr. Agro said recent events such as Artscape and the All-Star week FanFest exhibit demonstrate that people will use light rail and come to Howard Street if they they are given a good reason to do so. He said the MTA is willing to work with merchants and planners to explore other ways to rejuvenate the area.

"It's my view that the solution to breathing new economic vitality into this corridor is multifaceted," he said. "It's not just transportation. . . . We are all going to have to work together."

Mr. Rosenbaum said he isn't convinced that automobiles and light-rail cars can't operate on Howard Street at the same time. "The way the rails have been laid down in such a weaving, snaking fashion, perhaps it is a problem," he said. "But if the

need is there, there's a way to do it. Anything is possible."

CPHA meeting

Syndicated urban affairs columnist Neil Peirce will be the keynote speaker at the 52nd annual meeting of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association at 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Charles and Saratoga streets. His topic will be "Solutions for Baltimore: Opportunities for Meeting the Challenges of Urban America in the 1990s."

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