Cultural formula for Howard Street

October 08, 1993

After six years of trying to figure out how to best improve Baltimore City, the Schmoke administration has borrowed pages from William Donald Schaefer's experience and decided to try stepped-up downtown redevelopment. Lots of attention is being paid to the fringes of the Inner Harbor. But that is not City Hall's only focus. Howard Street, too, is getting renewed interest.

From 1858 until the 1970s, Howard Street was Baltimore's most prestigious retail hub. All the major department stores were there. So were a number of classy speciality shops. Those glory days came to an end with the middle-class flight to the suburbs and the construction of huge shopping malls in the counties.

Countless strategies have been tried to revive Howard Street. So far, none of them has worked. Subway construction, for example, helped kill remaining department stores in the 1970s but failed to bring new shoppers when the line finally was completed. In 1981, Los Angeles developer David Murdock came to town with plans for a $250 million urban mall; five years later, he quietly pulled out. By 1992, when light rail was introduced, Howard Street was lined with too many vacant commercial premises to attract new shoppers.

Under the Schmoke administration concepts that will be gradually unveiled in coming months, Howard Street is to become a "second-tier arts and culture area" that will try to attract more informal and experimental uses than Charles Street. Plans call for constantly changing crowd events -- ranging from flea markets to culinary festivals. The city also hopes to create an eclectic mix of galleries, performance spaces, shops, restaurants and residences there.

"It has to become a destination point where different uses cross-fertilize each other," says Honora Freeman, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-governmental agency coordinating the area's redevelopment.

Unlike the previous efforts, this strategy is relatively cheap. ("Chewable chunks," says Ms. Freeman.) It takes advantage of such existing assets as Lexington Market and the area's proximity to many Mount Vernon area cultural institutions and tries to bridge the "no-man's land" in between. Perhaps a modest approach works better than past grandiose schemes.

Mayor Schmoke is soon to announce the location of a new police sub-station along Howard Street. Area merchants have long been demanding such a step. They say a station will increase shoppers' confidence about safety as well as demonstrate the city's commitment to this once-thriving shopping area. It is a good start.

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