Battling over Howard Street

April 21, 1995

The Maryland Historical Society's plans for a $10 million expansion are ruffling some feathers because of the impact on 1920s-era storefronts in the 600 block of North Howard Street. The society wants to raze them for a parking lot; preservationists want them retained.

We half suspect this a bogus disagreement and that the focal point of the issue is not the Historical Society's plans but the future ambience of the city's one-time retail boulevard. If that is the case, the preservationists will have many difficult battles ahead.

In the past few years, Baltimore planners have come to grips with the realization that Howard Street's glory days are gone. It will never return as the retail hub it was. For that reason, current plans call for emphasizing the arts and artisans on Howard Street so that street-level spaces can become galleries, boutiques and restaurants while upstairs floors contain studio spaces, residences and offices.

Inherent in that vision -- which is to be tested in the 400 block of North Howard Street -- is an admission that scaled-down redevelopment is desirable. That, in turn, calls for selective demolition and rebuilding.

If their testimony before the city's Architectural Review Board is any indication, the preservationists still believe Howard Street's glory days can be restored. Theirs is a noble goal, but an unattainable one. Most of Howard Street is a ghost town. While Rite Aid Corp. has emerged as a hopeful savior of the old Hecht Co. department store colossus at Howard and Lexington streets, the future of a dozen more landmarks hangs in the balance.

Against that backdrop, arguing about some forgettable storefronts at the Historical Society property makes little sense. If their demolition enables the society to proceed with its expansion to the old Greyhound bus garage structure, that is a worthwhile barter.

Rather than opposing the Historical Society's plans, the preservationists should decide which buildings on Howard Street truly merit saving -- and then find financial angels to help save them.

VTC

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