Life After the Big Stores Go

March 04, 1995|By ANTERO PIETILA

Baltimore is not Washington. Which means that the pace of revitalization here is much slower than in the nation's capital and the scope smaller.

Yet as spring comes, Baltimoreans could do worse than take a stroll from Washington's Union Station to the old department-store district in the vicinity of G Street, between 7th and 14th streets. After more than a decade of abandonment, that area is coming back.

The famous department stores from Garfinckel's to Lansburgh's are all gone, of course. But a mixture of re-use and new construction has brought to the area new condominium apartments, offices, galleries, trendy boutiques and eclectic shops carrying such names as Nike, Virgin Records, Sony and Disney.

This downtown rejuvenation parallels the impressive redevelopment of a once-seedy stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue nearby. They are testimonies to Washington's incredible wealth -- and the need of well-paid bureaucrats, lawyers and lobbyists to live close to the seats of power.

Baltimore is about to begin a similar revitalization effort in the old downtown retail district, which was abandoned by its four main department-store anchors in the 1960s and 1970s. Even though the scale of planned renewal is almost embarrassingly modest, the difficulties are awesome.

The ''critical mass'' on Howard Street -- whether measured in shoppers, residents or important institutions -- disappeared long ago. To complicate matters further, a single owner, the Weinberg Foundation, controls most of the abandoned buildings and has shown little interest or creativity in marketing or redeveloping them. Those conditions doomed several previous revitalization attempts.

''Howard Street presents an incredible array of issues. It will never be a retail mecca again,'' says Michele Whelley, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

The Schmoke administration's aim is to acquire vacant properties from eight private owners (who do not include the Weinberg interests) and turn the west side of the 400 block into a showcase of revitalization with artists' housing and street-level spaces reserved for studios, shops and restaurants. The Baltimore Development Corp. is currently reviewing appraisals.

''Our goal is to have construction starting about this time next year,'' says Ms. Whelley. ''We are looking into fairly extensive interior gutting of the buildings.''

The city selected the 400 block as a starting point because ''we thought we were not going to make any headway'' with the Weinberg interests, says another development official.

''We said to ourselves, 'Let's do it here and then go back to them and perhaps get them interested in redeveloping their properties'.''

Because of the recent purchase of the old Hecht building by Rite Aid Corp., this strategy may have a chance of working.

The nation's largest drugstore chain wants to redevelop the former department store for several retail and office users. If the effort is successful, it may pressure the Weinberg Foundation into doing something about its many big -- and mostly vacant -- holdings, including the old Stewart's colossus catercorner from the old Hecht's.

Meanwhile, the city seems intent on relocating the non-profit Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center, which is currently housed in temporary quarters, to the corner of Howard and Franklin streets.

At its previous permanent home on Charles Street, the Eubie Blake institution, then run by a city agency, was often a maddeningly chaotic operation.

A move of the Eubie Blake center to Howard Street as an anchor of the ''Avenue of the Arts'' could present a unique opportunity to create a first-class jazz nostalgia and performance center, provided it is done by museum and entertainment professionals with ambitious goals. Baltimore, after all, is connected not only with Eubie Blake but also with such jazz greats as Cab Calloway, Chick Webb and Billie Holiday, plus a rich array of lesser-known talent.

That legacy, if it is preserved at all, is now divided among several institutions. Although the Eubie Blake museum has some memorabilia, 151 boxes of the ragtime composer's music and 94 boxes of correspondence and photographs are at the Maryland Historical Society. Some Cab Calloway memorabilia is housed at the Coppin State College.

A first-rate jazz center would bring all this together.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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