Downtown needs residents, not ad campaigns

March 29, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

TC Early next month, television screens and newspaper pages should be filled with advertisements toasting and trumpeting downtown Baltimore.

The ads will target Baltimoreans. Their aim is to sell downtown Baltimore to nontourists because, for too long, the city has been content to promote the Inner Harbor to bus loads of day-trippers from other cities.

"This is an unprecedented marketing campaign aimed at acquainting and reacquainting Baltimoreans with the more than 600 unique shops, restaurants and attractions Baltimore has to offer," says Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership business group, in a news release.

That statement is hard to knock, but I'm skeptical about this glitzy pep rally, featuring hot-air balloons, on Rash Field.

The question has to be asked, just what exactly is downtown Baltimore these days? The way the promotional literature describes the participating institutions and businesses, downtown stretches from the Great Blacks in Wax Museum at North Avenue and Bond Street to the Gallery Elizabeth in the 1400 block of Light St. That's a lot of geography.

Part of the campaign's goal will be to establish an "identity" for downtown restaurants, shops, cultural institutions, museums and galleries. That's a lot of identity to create over so large a field.

For too many years, Baltimore lavished too much attention on the Inner Harbor, a tourist-conventioneer downtown but not a place where resident Baltimoreans feel the need to spend much time.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Baltimore seemed bent on building an Ocean City kind of boardwalk along the shores of the Patapsco River. And speculative office buildings went up at a dizzying rate.

By the beginning of the 1990s, reality set in. Many of the office buildings sit largely vacant. Maryland's banks are being bought up by regional institutions. Traditional downtown white-collar jobs are growing more scarce. The urban drug wars make people scared to go out at night even if the harbor area is well policed.

I'm not sure that an ad campaign would be necessary today if downtown enjoyed the natural health that comes from having a large middle class in Baltimore.

The best downtowns are lived in and safe. Baltimore has rebuilt much of its commercial heart in the past 35 years. But the city never placed much emphasis on rebuilding a strong downtown residential core.

There were efforts and often they were just not good enough. We put up three apartment towers near Charles and Saratoga streets, but then allowed entire neighborhoods, such as the Mount Vernon district, to become shabby and second-rate. We renovated the old garment industry buildings centered at Redwood and Eutaw streets but allowed the Howard Street retail district to fall apart.

A glance at the recent list published of those who failed to pay city real estate property taxes on time shows that large numbers of individual downtown condominium apartments are tax delinquent. Often these properties overlook some of the choicest waterfront views in Fells Point and the Inner Harbor.

One argument has it that Baltimore is just not a good condo town and that people prefer to live in rowhouses. This may be so, but I'm not convinced that our civic leadership has truly believed in downtown Baltimore as a fit place to live. This is a bad attitude that needs correcting.

I think I'd be happier about the "Downtown Baltimore be a part of the show" campaign if this promotion pushed actual full-time living in the downtown neighborhoods as a pivotal component of the restaurant and shopping scene.

It's not an impossible agenda. Middle-class Baltimoreans have demonstrated they will live downtown, provided the setting is attractive, clean and safe.

Take a walk along Charles and Hanover streets in the Otterbein-Federal Hill-Sharp Leadenhall neighborhoods. This is one of downtown Baltimore's major residential success stories -- decent housing at all price levels.

It is the mark of a city's downtown if residents overcome all the annoyances (taxes, parking hassles, noise) to live there. Baltimore has in large measure rebuilt its downtown successfully from an engineering and physical standpoint. Now it's time to give it a soul, the kind of heart that only people can bring.

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