City sees Howard St. as Baltimore's SoHo Buildings in 400 block to be bought as first phase of artists' community

November 08, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

As part of a plan to turn Baltimore's Howard Street corridor into an "Avenue of the Arts," the Schmoke administration is moving to acquire nearly a dozen vacant buildings there for conversion to artists housing and gallery space.

The Baltimore Development Corp. has established a nonprofit affiliate to build and manage at least 50 residential and work spaces and galleries on the west side of the 400 block of N. Howard St.

It intends to use $1.2 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds to begin acquiring buildings for the project, through conventional sales or by condemnation, if city representatives can't reach agreement with the owners on a price.

A development manager is being selected by the city to help choose the buildings, develop a financing plan and oversee the project.

Preliminary studies indicate the total development cost will be $4 million to $5 million, with additional funds coming from state loans and syndication of tax credits for affordable housing.

At a workshop on downtown development Saturday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke touted the artists' housing initiative as one of many his administration is working on to continue the revitalization of the center city.

Mr. Schmoke and his aides say the project will help speed the transformation of Howard Street by providing viable uses for old commercial buildings that ought to be preserved; adding to the city's stock of affordable housing, reinforcing the theme of making the area a magnet for artists, and spark spinoff development.

"The goal is not one isolated block. It's a neighborhood of artists living and working together," said Honora Freeman, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "It would create jobs, create energy, create spending power, and stabilize the neighborhood."

The 400 block of Howard St. is within walking distance of more than a dozen art institutions and organizations, including the Walters Art Gallery, Maryland Institute, Center Stage, Peabody Conservatory, the Maryland State Arts Council, Maryland Art Place, and Antique Row.

Other ventures proposed for the corridor include a $60 million performing arts center at 901 N. Howard St., expansion of the Maryland Historical Society in the old Greyhound bus terminal off the 600 block of N. Howard St., and reopening of the Mayfair Theater in the 500 block of N. Howard St., possibly in conjunction with Towson State University.

Planners say that adding rental housing to the mix would increase activity in the area around the clock and trigger the opening of cafes, restaurants and other businesses catering to artists, such as supply stores and craft shops.

They point to SoHo in New York, the Adams-Morgan district in Washington and a nonprofit venture called Artspace in Minneapolis as examples of artist communities that could be a model for Howard Street.

'The right ingredients'

"It's happened elsewhere. I'm convinced it can happen here. We have all the right ingredients," Ms. Freeman said.

Located between Franklin and Mulberry streets, the west side of the 400 block of Howard St. contains a dozen commercial buildings built between the 1920s and 1960s that range in height from two to five stories. During the heyday of the city's retail district, they were filled with shops and restaurants.

Recent tenants included a Rite Aid pharmacy, Chinese restaurant, fried chicken outlet, temporary employee agency, income tax preparation service, furniture store and pawn shop. The largest building still occupied is Linn's Uniform City at 406 N. Howard St.

rTC A feasibility study commissioned by the city indicated housing for artists would be a good way to draw people to the Market Center area and recycle older commercial buildings.

The Abell Foundation funded the study, which was prepared by Bacon and Co. of Baltimore in cooperation with Cho, Wilks & Benn Inc. and Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse Inc.

Ms. Freeman said her agency chose the block to begin building artists' housing because it has an abundance of deep buildings with large windows and interiors that are ideal for conversion to loft housing.

The block falls within an urban renewal area, where the city already has legal authority to acquire properties by condemnation for a development project. City Council legislation that established the renewal area would have to be amended, however, before the city could take particular properties within the block.

In most cases the buildings will be recycled, although in some instances they may be demolished for parking or new "infill" construction. The city's preliminary plans call for all of the buildings' upper levels to become rental housing and for the spaces at street level to be set aside for galleries and other arts-related uses.

Individual living and work spaces will range in size from 900 to 2,000 square feet and will be designed to meet the needs of "artists of all disciplines."

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