Chewable Chunks on Howard Street

ANTERO PIETILA

October 09, 1993|By ANTERO PIETILA

So many dreams have been dreamt about revitalizing HowardStreet over the past two decades that just thinking about them is likely to produce a nightmare. Now, the Schmoke administration has quietly started its own drive to resuscitate this once-prestigious retail hub.

Unlike the previous multi-million-dollar plans, the latest effort is starting in a decidedly modest fashion. ''Let's do it in chewable chunks,'' says Honora Freeman, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

If everything goes according to plans, the public may soon get a sense that the Howard Street area of largely vacant storefronts is returning to life as a corridor of eclectic art and cultural uses. The first event to drum this consciousness will be an open-air seafood festival near Lexington Market October 23.

By next spring, a regular flea-market should be in operation somewhere near the Antique Row. Art shows will follow. And so on.

''If we can build those kinds of uses on Howard Street over a two-year period, you create a destination for people,'' says Michael Seipp, of the quasi-public city development agency. ''Once that happens, certain types of retail will follow.''

''. . . and restaurants, and people wanting to live there,'' adds Ms. Freeman. ''We have to do heavy-duty marketing to make this work.''

A decade ago, Los Angeles developer David Murdock got everyone excited by talking about a $250 million urban mall as the centerpiece of Howard Street revival.

This may sound like another pipe dream. But a brand-new $4.5 million apartment and retail complex is taking shape at the corner of Mulberry and Eutaw Streets. Its handsome brick-veneer structures will contain 29 apartment units as well as street-level retail place.

On the other side of the Howard corridor, three formerly vacant buildings next to the Chinese Free Masons' lodge and the Kuomintang headquarters in the 300 block Park Avenue are being rehabilitated.

''We will have five apartments and three street-level commercial spaces,'' says Edward Asafo-Adjei, a Columbia research biologist who is the developer.

If enough small bursts of activity take place, the image of the whole Howard Street corridor from Maryland General Hospital to the Camden Yards vicinity will change, city officials believe.

Howard Street is regarded as an exceptionally tough redevelopment proposition for many reasons.

The main one is the heavy concentration of properties in the hands of Harry Weinberg's heirs. Like the quirky old man himself, they have chosen to sit on them rather than actively seek profitable reuses.

Previous grandiose redevelopment plans created so many false hopes that Ms. Freeman and Mr. Seipp appear deliberately vague about the scope of current plans. They volunteer that a new police sub-station -- long demanded by area merchants -- will be located in the area. Other projects must wait for announcement by Mayor Schmoke.

It is no secret that development officials see such landmarks as the old Mayfair Theater and the adjoining buildings at Howard and Franklin Streets as marketable development opportunities for future cultural uses. The same goes for the boarded-up Hippodrome Theater, a one-time venue for big bands and vaudeville acts on Eutaw Street.

The hulking edifices of Stewart's, Hochschild Kohn and Hecht's department stores present bigger challenges. They are all padlocked. Moreover, there are so few stores still operating along Howard Street that most blocks are deserted even on a sunny afternoon.

''There is no easy solution,'' says Bernard Manekin, the doyen of Baltimore developers. ''To have any kind of effective retailing, you have to have a mass market, pedestrian traffic. You don't have that situation on Howard Street.''

Looking back at the failed plans of previous governments, Schmoke administration development officials say it is clear Howard Street has no future as a conventional retail hub. That does not mean that a right mix of retail, residential and artistic-cultural uses might not work.

For some time, they have been trying to find a building along the corridor that would offer exhibit and performance space for the Eubie Blake jazz museum, along -- perhaps -- with tributes to such other Baltimore jazz greats as Cab Calloway, Chick Webb and Billie Holiday.

''Got to keep dreaming,'' says Mr. Seipp.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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