Calling young architects Howard Street: Design contest seeks new ideas for renewal of historic retail district.

September 20, 1996

HOWARD STREET is a boulevard of broken dreams. Since the 1970s, when the big department stores vacated that downtown corridor, countless attempts have been made to revive Baltimore's one-time retail hub. Progress has been slow. The most optimistic assessment today -- made in the afterglow of the opening of a huge Rite-Aid store in the old Hecht Co. building -- would be that the area's further decline may have at least been halted.

The city's plans to turn the west side of the 400 block of Howard Street into housing for artists, studio space and entertainment venues are crawling ahead at a snail's pace. The same goes for the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center's hope to build a new exhibition and performance center at the corner of Howard and Franklin streets. Yet hope springs eternal.

The latest attempt to train a spotlight on the area is an international design competition for young architects, landscape architects and artists sponsored by the Young Architects Committee of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. Its purpose to show "what could be" done in the Howard Street corridor, if large-scale revitalization gets under way.

Working under a Dec. 4 deadline, participants are asked to suggest plans for the re-use of four prominent vacant spaces as well as the streetscape from the Maryland Institute to Camden Yards. "It's an ideas competition," said Nicole Blumner, a contest official, adding that the group hopes the ideas could be implemented.

Word about the contest -- which has its own Internet site -- has spread rapidly and the sponsors have received more than 120 inquiries. The winning entries will be on display locally from Dec. DTC 28 to Feb. 22 and will later join the traveling photographic exhibition, "The New American Ghetto."

Howard Street's decline was due to a number of complexities, including control of much of the land by a single owner. Giving young designers an opportunity to express their ideas for the thoroughfare -- albeit free from the constraints of ownership and cost realities -- may create the kind of excitement that is needed to get things moving on Howard Street. The contest will be worth watching.

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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