Residential housing realistic for Howard St.

November 10, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

At long last there's a worthy proposal to help the plummeting fortunes of downtown Baltimore's Howard Street: Build residential housing.

As simple as that sounds, it is not. In the past 35 years, as Baltimore has struggled to rebuild its downtown core, there hasn't been much enthusiasm about making the center of the city into an acceptable address to lay down a residential welcome mat.

The lack of determination to make downtown living practical and pleasing has hurt -- even crippled -- some neighborhoods. Mount Vernon, Cathedral, Seton Hills, Barre Circle and Penn Station, which ring the old downtown business district, have suffered.

It is possible to create a pleasant and successful downtown residential community. Federal Hill, Otterbein and the Loft District (the former garment manufacturing area at Lombard and Paca streets) have proven excellent residential neighborhoods since new capital was invested in them in the past two decades. Certainly, the Loft area and Otterbein were considered dubious and unrealistic for middle-class habitation 20 years ago. Federal Hill's middle class renewal is a little older -- but not that much.

City officials, who long championed the redevelopment of the city in terms of office buildings and then tourist and convention business, gave secondary or tertiary status to residential priorities. One of the main problems was that so few government agency heads and local movers and shakers chose to reside in the 21201 and 21202 ZIP Codes.

Maybe Baltimore will never achieve the kind of permanent downtown, middle-class residential population of other cities. Maybe fear and distaste of a distinct urban setting will turn people off and keep them in Columbia or Owings Mills.

The suggestion for a quasi-governmental agency to buy and convert some eight buildings in the 400 block of N. Howard St. to residences is long overdue. It is also a right place to start. The current plan, though sketchy, calls it artists' housing, the artists presumably being actors, photographers, painters.

The idea is that artists will appreciate the inherent beauty of the neighborhood and its aged buildings while overlooking what other more conventional people might consider major drawbacks -- noise, lack of parking and schools, the fear of crime and too much asphalt. For many people, the 400 block of N. Howard might be just too much city. For others, it might be not enough.

Baltimoreans with a memory of the street will recall this stretch along the west side of Howard as a place where businesses once flourished. Hecht Brothers was at the northern end of the block at Franklin Street. Isaac Benesch home furnishings was at the south end at Mulberry Street. Another landmark was Schuster's bedding, which advertised its wares with a large swan.

In the middle was the fabled Otto Schellhase's restaurant, whose kitchen produced some of Baltimore's best sour beef and schnitzel Holstein. The beer was always perfectly chilled, too. The Evening Sun's H.L. Mencken and his friends at the Saturday Night Club selected this restaurant as their haunt.

The 400 block of N. Howard has been in serious economic trouble for the past 30 years. Competing malls exacted a toll. Customers moved miles away. And many of the buildings were just too large to support first-floor-only businesses.

It was only a matter of time before the street hit bottom. Judging by the vacancy rate, there seems to be but one thriving permanent business, a uniform shop. Otherwise, the stretch is a commercial cemetery.

The city made some efforts to revive it. In the 1980s, it spent nearly $35 million to repave the street and add unsightly ornamental lights. Then it ripped up the newly paved street bed to add light rail tracks. Some thought the modern streetcars would restore Howard Street's prosperity and liveliness.

In any discussion about Howard Street, the name of the late Harry Weinberg inevitably comes up.

Weinberg, a miserly billionaire and speculator, bought many Howard Street parcels in the 1970s, including most of the east side of the 500 block (Franklin to Centre streets), a large corner building at Howard and Saratoga streets and the former Stewart's department store at Howard and Lexington streets.

The Weinberg properties remain problems. His legal successor, his Weinberg Foundation, has preserved the status quo. The buildings remain nearly vacant. In their present condition, they and the few surviving tenants do not offer much hope for the future of the street.

The name Weinberg has intimidated governmental agencies, which seem to tiptoe around this major force of inertia in the Howard Street corridor. Maybe it is time to waken this sleeping giant and deal with it.

Certainly having a governmental entity buy the old Schuster's bedding building and open it up to some local sculptors is not going to end Howard Street's dreary days. But it is not going to continue the pattern of hopelessness and depressing decline.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.