Visions Of Grandeur

November 21, 1993|By Ross Hetrick

Howard Street. This most visible of downtown thoroughfares, this route traveled by thousands on the light rail bound for Camden Yards, is no corridor of hope. From a seat on the gleaming white train, the drab scene flashes by the window like a recession-era documentary. The once-proud retail giants loom cold and gray like tombstones.

Once considered the Fifth Avenue of Baltimore, Howard Street was a showplace. Grand display windows at department stores competed for the attention of shoppers who ventured downtown in their finest attire.

But as many of their customers moved to the suburbs, the department stores closed. And as the street declined, some property owners sat on their investments rather than find new uses for them. Then renewal efforts inadvertently added to the street's woes. Mass-transit construction helped decimate retail traffic already diminished by the drift of the population to the suburbs.

Yet to optimists, shabby Howard Street has potential. To them, the majestic windows and handsome columns of vacant stores and theaters seem to cry out for one more chance.

It's coming, city officials and developers say.

The visions they've revealed so far still sound vague -- but intriguing. Proponents of renewal don't agree on the methods, on the viability of the proposals, or on the sources of funding. Even some supporters of Howard Street renewal predict failure, but after years of frustration, there's a glimmer of hope. Success will depend on the city's ability to woo residents and businesses downtown with promises of cheap rent and beefed-up security.

Turn the page to have a look at a new face proposed for Howard Street.

USHER IN THE ARTISTS

Take the boards off the vacant buildings and pump some life into Howard Street by turning it over to painters, sculptors and actors.

This new development plan bearing the city's seal of approval paints the corridor north of Saratoga Street as a haven for avant-garde artists.

Planners envision an eclectic mix of offbeat galleries, and experimental theaters, and coffee bars where art patrons and hip young people might sip their espresso and cappuccino at sidewalk tables. Art for the galleries would come from second-floor lofts, where the artists would live and create.

Imagine the likes of Barry Levinson, Jonathan Yardley, Anne Tyler, Ethel Ennis and John Waters strolling Howard Street, browsing in shops, stopping ever so often before windows to look at the abstract paintings.

Young artists in paint-smeared bib overalls would talk to patrons about their inspirations or, on a more mundane level, the price of a painting or sculpture.

To attract monied patrons, there might be days when the galleries and shops would bring out wine and cheese, and

entertain their customers with wandering minstrels and a big band on a parking lot (there are plenty in this area).

But this is just a dream, still taking shape in the heads of city developers.

The Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public agency that is supposed to spur the local economy, is hesitant to say the plan is for a Bohemian quarter. Yet its officers compare their vision to SoHo in New York City and other communities where artists turned spacious lofts and derelict buildings into studios and galleries that lured well-heeled customers to formerly blighted areas.

"We are very interested in trying to create an art and cultural center, which provides space for both individuals and institutions which are not yet mainstream," says Michael V. Seipp, the Development Corp.'s vice president for real estate and project development. "If you really step back from those buildings, those buildings lend themselves to that. Huge arched windows up front. The downstairs, of course, are perfect for gallery space because they all were designed as retail space."

Howard Street would showcase the work of avant-garde artists who do not fit into the more established art world that is represented in the galleries on Charles Street, Mr. Seipp says. And Howard Street also would provide a place for them to play.

"There has to be a night life that is created and a nexus of entertainment and other services that make it attractive for that," he says.

Exactly how the city would transform Howard Street into Soho has not been sorted out. It might involve a public/private partnership that would work through the Baltimore Development Corp., Mr. Seipp says. Initially, it might be funded by public seed money, and maybe a non-profit group would have to be involved, he says.

The Development Corp. adopted the artist-haven idea after meeting in June with about 95 architects, developers and others interested in Howard Street. Its officers left the meeting convinced that the art option is viable, in part because Howard Street is near cultural institutions, including the Maryland Institute, College of Art, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Lyric Opera House, the Theatre Project and the Baltimore School for the Arts.

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