Howard St. needs cars, panel says Mayoral commission envisions more bustle along downtown strip

Once a main thoroughfare

Blocks closed off in late 1980's to make way for light rail

October 23, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Nearly a decade after automobiles were banned from sections of Howard Street for construction of the state's light rail line through Baltimore, a mayoral commission is encouraging the city to bring them back.

The group of 60 business owners and community leaders also would like to see the city build a large meeting and exposition center along Howard Street to replace Festival Hall, the recently demolished exhibit center that drew thousands to the Convention Center area for car shows, crafts fairs and other events.

And it still supports the proposal for a $60 million performing arts center in the Mount Royal cultural district.

These are among the dozens of recommendations developed by the Howard Street Task Force, a citizens' panel appointed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to recommend ways to reinvigorate the once-bustling Howard Street corridor.

Mr. Schmoke is scheduled to receive and comment on the panel's final report during a ceremony today. As part of the event, he will begin the installation of street signs that will identity Howard Street as "The Avenue of the Arts."

The Schmoke administration also has committed $175,000 in city funds to the task force to help fund arts programming, special events, feasibility studies and leasing and development efforts. It will be combined with $25,000 from the Market Center Association.

"Revitalizing Howard Street is a process that takes time and careful planning," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, a management organization that led the year-long search for ideas.

"Each recommendation by the task force follows a strategy that relies on building momentum with individual projects, which we believe will lead to a successful and innovative approach to revitalizing Howard Street."

The planning effort began in August 1994, when Mayor Schmoke established the task force and asked it to develop practical ideas for rejuvenating Howard Street, from Camden Yards on the south to the Mount Royal cultural district on the north.

The Baltimore Development Corp. and the Mayor's Advisory Committee for Art and Culture worked with the Downtown Partnership and five working committees of the task force, chaired by merchant Milt Rosenbaum and architect Steve Ziger.

One of the group's most far-reaching recommendations is to "encourage and improve vehicular traffic flow along Howard Street."

This would change the traffic pattern established in the late 1980s, when cars were banned from several blocks of Howard Street near Lexington Street for construction and operation of the light rail line.

Since then, merchants have complained that the area doesn't get adequate street traffic because people can't drive through.

According to city officials, a study by Sabra, Halkias and Associates Inc. offers several options for returning cars to Howard Street so they can coexist with light rail cars and buses.

The alternatives will be shared with city and state transit officials and circulated to area merchants for comment. A final recommendation is expected by year's end.

The task force also recommended increasing police visibility along the corridor, keeping the area cleaner, improving lighting and developing a strategy for turning vacant sites into development opportunities.

The panel suggested that Howard Street be divided into three segments for planning purposes, with distinctive themes for each. In the "northern section," from Preston to Centre streets, planners would focus on arts, entertainment, culture and housing, including housing for artists.

In the central section, from Centre to Fayette streets, the focus would be on retailing.

In the southern section, from Fayette to Pratt streets, the focus would be on sports, governmental and university-related uses, to take advantage of the corridor's proximity to the University Center district and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

650 organizations

In its 30-page report, the panel noted that Maryland has more than 650 nonprofit arts organizations, which attract 6 million visitors and provide 12,000 jobs. "The task force fully endorses the use of arts and culture as a way to generate more activity and life for the Howard Street corridor," the report says.

Specific arts-related development suggestions included recycling the Hippodrome Theater as a performing arts center or National Museum of Live Entertainment, restoring the Mayfair Theater for live performances and films and creating an arts center similar to Alexandria, Va.'s Torpedo Factory -- a concept that has been discussed with the owners of the mostly vacant Stewart & Co. building.

Ethnic marketplace

The panel also suggested that Howard Street be promoted as an ethnic marketplace and the vacant Congress Hotel on Franklin Street be converted to apartments.

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