The Block: a Blockage to a Secure Downtown

February 01, 1994|By KEVIN F. McANDREWS

Dan Rodricks and Michael Olesker took issue with the State Police's raid of The Block. They questioned the mayor's and governor's priorities and suggested that the raid amounted to ''instant urban renewal.''

The city has been ''drooling'' over Block real estate, according to Mr. Olesker, and wants to convert the ''grubby joints into towering high-rent office buildings.'' Mr. Rodricks has heard ''yap yap'' that East Baltimore is ripe for redevelopment as office space. It's a ''political agenda'' linked to the development of Commerce Place, he says.

Where have they been? The writers are poorly informed about the redevelopment process, and they ignore the government's responsibility for addressing serious crime.

First of all, the Block properties are separated by Baltimore Street, and the contiguous buildings are too small in the aggregate to assemble a parcel large enough for a major office building. In the seven years that I have been following the Block issue, I have never heard the suggestion that the Block buildings be torn down to develop an office building. City Planning Department officials confirm to me that no such plan has ever been discussed.

There isn't a market for new office space, and when there finally is sometime in the next century, the 400 block of East Baltimore Street is not where it will happen, Block or no Block.

What are the development issues affected by The Block? Look at a map of downtown. Baltimore Street should be the main east-west connector, but The Block is a blockage. No one wants to walk through it. The Brokerage and Fishmarket may not have failed solely because of The Block, but the proposed Children's Museum at the Brokerage will.

Mr. Rodricks sheds no tears for the investors in Commerce Place who risked development near The Block, but how about the students of Baltimore Culinary College? Is it right to subject them to the criminal elements attracted to their ''campus'' by The Block? How about the employees of area businesses that have owned property in the vicinity since before The Block became noticeably worse? (Only Mr. Rodricks thinks it's the same Block as 15 years ago; even the operators admit otherwise.) Do these individuals' jobs or sense of security count?

How about the hundreds of city employees working in the East Baltimore Street office buildings whose doors the city locked to protect those people from The Block?

Cleaning up and ''redeveloping'' The Block is not at all about tearing down the physical structures to build high-rises. It is about creating a secure, clean environment for downtown Baltimore, everybody's neighborhood, to grow and prosper.

Cleaning up The Block will have clear direct benefit on the entire east side of downtown from the new Children's Center and Fishmarket to the Christopher Columbus Center.

It will have more far-reaching impact as well. The John Hopkins Hospital complex attracts 40,000 employees and visitors daily to its campus less than two miles away from downtown.

Hopkins' population will be 3 minutes by subway from East Baltimore Street when the new subway connection is complete. Clean up The Block and the buildings can be put to use in a manner that helps connect the Hopkins population to downtown and the Inner Harbor. Leave The Block as it is and its element will invade the new subway stop and ruin that major

investment as well.

Hopkins, the city's largest employer, is expanding outside the city because the city has been unable to provide it security and room to grow. The subway connection to downtown is part of a strategy to deal with that concern. The city wants the East Baltimore Street stop to be the new Inner Harbor stop also. Fat chance if The Block remains unchanged.

This is not an issue of some elite (high-rise building owners) versus the little guy (the Block operators). Private studies show the impact of The Block on the daily activities of the large population of citizens who work downtown. Studies have also shown how important East Baltimore Street is to all of downtown and how the existing buildings can be put to more productive use, by their current owners or new owners.

Work has already been done on a creative plan to capitalize on the key location of these properties on East Baltimore Street. Reuse of the properties as service-oriented retail (drug stores, dry cleaners, etc.), combined with elements that recognize the connection to Hopkins Hospital and the Baltimore Culinary College, such as student housing or special teaching facilities, can work.

Concerned area property owners and employers are prepared to work with the city and the current or new property owners to transform The Block -- teen prostitution, drugs and all -- to uses that will benefit all of Baltimore's citizens.

Kevin F. McAndrews is managing director of the Harlan Company, on Commerce Place.

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