It takes quite a leap of fancy to envision vacant Howard Street shops as galleries and performance spaces, with loft apartments on upper levels: A Baltimore version of New York's SoHo art district.
That's one of the ideas for revitalizing the city's one-time retail hub, which went downhill rapidly in the 1970s after all the department stores abandoned the area.
Rite Aid Corp.'s acquisition of the former Hecht Co. department store building at Howard and Lexington streets has suddenly made this vision an intriguing one. Rite Aid, the nation's largest retail drug chain, plans to use the street level for a large store. It hopes to find other retailers and office users for the rest of the building's eight floors.
An interesting wrinkle in the Rite Aid plans is that Martin L. Grass, the company's president, lives in Timonium and commutes to corporate headquarters in Camp Hill, Pa. He is becoming an increasingly active player locally: A director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Johns Hopkins Health Systems, he recently was elected to the board of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
The acquisition of the old Hecht building comes at a time when Rite Aid is aggressively expanding in Baltimore's inner city.
The company recently opened a new store on Pennsylvania Avenue and is starting construction at North and Greenmount avenues and at the American Brewery complex on Federal Street. Yet another outlet may go in a shopping complex planned for Howard and 21st streets.
Will the Rite Aid purchase of the old Hecht building mean that Howard Street's troubles have finally bottomed out?
More would have to happen before such an optimistic statement can be made. The Lexington Mall, where Rite Aid is currently located, is still an iffy proposition, despite the recent opening of a YoungWorld children's wear and accessory store in the space once occupied by Epstein's department store. A building that long housed Woolworth's is empty, McCrory's next door requires a major modernization that may or may not be in the plans of the struggling chain; Morton's on the opposite corner is waiting to get out of its lease. . . .
Yet for the first time in a long while, there is reason for real optimism on Howard Street. Planners have divided the former commercial hub into three stretches and are seeking different re-uses for each one. With Rite Aid as an attention-getter, things may finally begin to work out.