Charles Center: Is It Dead?

January 02, 1994|By EDWARD GUNTS

As the New Year begins, hopes abound for Baltimore's Mount Royal cultural district. The Schmoke administration has embarked on a campaign to transform the Howard Street corridor into an "avenue of the arts." Architects from around the country are vying to design a performing arts center next to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. "It's a natural," says Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

But 10 blocks south of the cultural district, the picture isn't nearly so bright. Charles Center, the 33-acre renewal area that was the starting point for Baltimore's vaunted Renaissance, took a definite turn for the worse in 1993:

* One Charles Center, the Mies van der Rohe-designed office tower that led the downtown building boom when it opened 32 years ago, went on the auction block after its owners defaulted on a $19.6 million mortgage. It was "bought back" for $11.5 million by its lender -- a reflection of the building's diminished value after a longtime occupant, CSX Corp., moved its headquarters to Jacksonville, Fla.

* The Blaustein Building, across Charles from One Charles Center, lost two key tenants when KLNB Realtors and a division of the Amoco Oil Co. both moved to Baltimore County. Sun Life Insurance Co. has left the Sun Life Building. Hamburger's clothing store no longer occupies the Hamburger's building. And storefronts up and down Charles Street, from the old Hansa Haus to new spaces in Charles Plaza, stood vacant as the recession battered local retailers.

* Buildings and public spaces in Charles Center are looking run-down, too. The fountain in Hopkins Plaza is perennially out of order, as is the escalator near the Mercantile building. Shop windows are grimy. And the number of homeless people has increased so dramatically that the city's public works department had to install a metal cage over the Charles Center subway vents to prevent people from camping out there.

* Now the fate of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, sculptural centerpiece of Hopkins Plaza since 1967, has been cast into doubt by the plan to build the performing arts center in the Mount Royal area. The $60 million Mount Royal theater complex would be the new home of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, the organization that currently has a long-term lease at the Mechanic.

Warning Sign

No one is sounding the alarm just yet. But this chain of seemingly unrelated events serves as a warning that Charles Center, once the city's hottest redevelopment area, is in danger of slipping into the same depressed state from which Howard Street has been trying to recover ever since its four biggest department stores closed more than a decade ago.

It also underscores how fragile the city's renaissance can be -- and how much even the rejuvenated sections of downtown need constant attention. And it raises serious questions about the future of Charles Center and the Charles Street corridor.

Is Charles Center dying, so soon after it was built? Are the city fathers and mothers writing it off to help other parts of town? What will happen to the privately-owned Mechanic theater? Can anything be done to prevent a further decline of the area, so it doesn't become a black hole in the middle of the city?

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has led the effort to revive Howard Street, believes that the city and local arts community need to take a closer look at the Mechanic.

"I think we're still going to have a theater there," the mayor said. "But it will probably have a different niche. The question is: How much money will we have to put into upgrading the theater?"

Mr. Schmoke said he would like an assessment of all the different theater projects and renovations proposed for downtown Baltimore -- including Mount Royal's performing arts center and restorations of the Mayfair, Hippodrome and Town. He wants to know what impact they would have on each other and on existing venues.

Governor Schaefer says changes at the Mechanic are inevitable, given its age, size and physical condition.

"It was great when it was built," he said. "But it hasn't been able to keep up with the times. It's too small and antiquated."

Mr. Schaefer added that the fate of Charles Center depends on other factors besides its theater.

"The downtown area doesn't need culture right now," he said. "It needs safety. The problem that I'm going to work on beginning Jan. 1 is the crime situation in the state of Maryland and particularly in Baltimore. . . . Crime in the city of Baltimore is a major deterrent to economic progress, so we've got to do something about that."

An Unqualified Success

The Charles Center renewal effort began 40 years ago, in 1954, when a local group called the Committee for Downtown was formed to fight the decline in property values and keep businesses from fleeing to the suburbs. The group raised $150,000 to commission a master plan to guide downtown development, and the first major infusion of construction funds came in 1958, when city voters approved a $25 million bond issue for preliminary site work.

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