Bringing back vibrant downtown Study: A task force is looking for a plan to redevelop city's former retail district and turn it into a community for students and young professionals.

Urban Landscape

December 04, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

AT THIS TIME of year, the area around Howard and Lexington streets in Baltimore used to be teeming with shoppers patronizing the various downtown department stores -- including Stewart's, Hecht's, Hutzler's and Hochschild Kohn & Co.

This fall, with those large retailers gone from downtown, property owners and public officials are looking for ways to bring the district back to life -- without counting on retail activity that may never return.

Last week marked the first meeting of the West Side Task Force, a group that has been formed to create a redevelopment plan for the area that once was the city's traditional retail district.

The meeting was convened by representatives of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has commissioned consultants to work with the task force and recommend ways to rejuvenate the west side of downtown.

"We're dreaming big," said Joel Winegarden, manager of real estate development for the Weinberg Foundation. "The idea behind the study is to find out what works."

Close to 75 acres

The area being studied is bounded by Saratoga Street on the north, Paca Street on the west, Camden Street on the south and Hopkins Place and Liberty Street on the east. It encompasses 18 city blocks and hundreds of properties -- close to 75 acres in all. Many of the buildings are vacant or underused.

Over the next six months, the task force will map out a plan that can guide development of the area. Task force members also want the consultants to estimate the demand for additional housing, prepare demographic profiles of potential residents and analyze the potential for such individual properties as the Baltimore Arena, Hippodrome Theater and Lexington Market.

Winegarden said he and his associates at the Weinberg Foundation aren't launching the study to authenticate any preconceived notions.

He said they simply want to find what can be done to enliven the area and give it a stronger identity. He noted that it is bounded by areas that are healthy and growing, including the University of Maryland's downtown campus, Camden Yards, Charles Center and the Mount Vernon cultural district -- and that could provide clues as to how it might evolve in the future.

Work, study, live

One suggestion is to take advantage of the high number of students and young professionals who work or study nearby and who might like to live in the area as well.

The west side of downtown, planners say, has an ample supply of older office or loft buildings that could be converted to provide rental housing on the upper floors and shops at street level.

"The idea is to create a neighborhood that can be used by young professionals and students," said David Stein, director of property development for the Weinberg Foundation.

The area also could be a center for computer laboratories and "incubator space" for fledgling companies that could employ recent college graduates, Winegarden said.

"What we've found is that, as a city, Baltimore is graduating a high number of very intelligent people who are going other places to live," Winegarden said. "The question is: How could we get them to stay?"

"We believe strongly that this area could become a residential district as well as a working area," he said. "We envision it as a place where people can live and work."

The Weinberg Foundation is paying for the west side study as community service -- at an estimated cost of at least $200,000.

The consulting team is headed by Richard Burns and Matt D'Amico of Design Collective, an architectural and urban planning firm based in downtown Baltimore.

Other experts include Economics Research Associates, a commercial analyst; Howard Stein Hudson, a transportation and parking consultant; Morton Hoffman & Co., a residential analyst; and Metroventures USA, an expert on financial programs and improving the street scape.

The task force includes representatives from the University of Maryland, the University of Maryland medical system, Downtown Partnership, Baltimore Development Corp., and the Law Offices of Peter Angelos, lead owner of the Orioles. Members are expected to have some recommendations, for long-range and short-range action, by spring.

Winegarden said the Weinberg Foundation wants to be a catalyst for change by launching the study.

"The Weinberg Foundation couldn't make it happen by itself," he said. "But we thought that if people on the task force start taking action, others will jump in as they see the opportunities."

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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