Wave of downtown plans rushes away from harbor Baltimore development could spread prosperity if proposals fit together

June 28, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

"If there is magic on this planet," the environmentalist Loren Eiseley once observed, "it is contained in water."

And for many years, the Inner Harbor waterfront was the magic that drove development in downtown Baltimore -- the place where builders most wanted to be.

But all of a sudden, developers and property owners seem to be discovering that there's life beyond the Inner Harbor.

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke unveiled an "action plan" Thursday to revitalize 18 blocks on the west side of downtown, it was the latest of half a dozen initiatives that local groups have launched in recent months to invest in or otherwise rejuvenate sections of downtown Baltimore, none of which is on the waterfront.

Some groups are working closely with the city. Others are working independently. Together, their efforts represent more than $1 billion of potential development over the next decade.

They would bring additional housing, offices, stores and attractions, in a mixture of new and renovaed buildings. They would dramatically alter the landscape for those who live, work or play downtown. They would fill in the gaps between the fixed-up areas of downtown. Most of all, they would spread the vitality of the city far beyond the water's edge.

And it's all fueled by a common conviction that it's not right to fix up the harborfront and let other sections of the city languish.

"The city can't survive with just a waterfront. So much of the city isn't on the water. You have to have a strong core," says Jimmy Rouse, a local businessman and artist who is leading one of the revival efforts.

"Everything does not have to be on the waterfront," agrees Peter G. Angelos, local attorney and Orioles owner, who is influential in several redevelopment projects.

"We can't neglect the rest of the city," argues Bernard Siegel, head of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, leader of another revitalization effort.

Here's what these nonwaterfront initiatives involve:

The Charles Street Corridor -- Seeking to tap into the public's interest in urban retailing, a group headed by Rouse, businessman Kemp Byrnes and others wants to turn a five-block stretch of Charles Street into an open-air shopping and entertainment district.

Mount Vernon -- Eight cultural institutions have joined forces to promote the Mount Vernon historic district as a single, must-see destination, comparable to the Inner Harbor. Together, they're planning more than $100 million worth of improvements to their properties.

Charles Center: Property owners are teaming with the city to revitalize Charles Center, the 33-acre renewal area whose construction preceded the transformation of the Inner Harbor. The initiative is led by Angelos, whose law firm occupies the One Charles Center office tower. Plans include renewal of Center Plaza and Hopkins Plaza, construction of an expanded downtown center for the Johns Hopkins University, and possibly a new use for the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Central business district -- Owners plan to renovate or replace many buildings in the heart of downtown, including Water Street Mews, the Southern Hotel and the former USF&G headquarters.

East side -- Community leaders this month unveiled a long-range strategy for connecting the downtown business district with the attractions and neighborhoods east of it.

West side -- Trustees of the Weinberg Foundation and other west-side "stakeholders" commissioned Design Collective of Baltimore to prepare a $350 million plan to revive Baltimore's former retail district as a "diverse, vital, desirable urban neighborhood" with housing, offices, shops and entertainment.

Together, these projects could lead to the most sweeping changes downtown since plans were launched for Charles Center and the Inner Harbor.

"Over the next 30 or 40 years, you'll see a totally revitalized downtown," Rouse predicts. "The economics are going to dictate it."

If it all happens, "it would be a major revitalization of the downtown," agreed J. Joseph Clarke, local representative for the team planning to build the $100 million One Light Street office and hotel tower near Light and Baltimore streets.

"It's going to spread the renaissance from one end of the city to the other," Siegel predicts.

The flurry of activity is reminiscent of nothing so much as the period in the late 1970s, before Harborplace opened, when just about every block of the city got spruced up for that event.

This year will bring openings, too, including the $220 million football stadium in Camden Yards and additional phases of the Pier 4 Power Plant and Harborplace renovations.

But more is driving the latest effort than the desire to piggyback on blockbuster openings this year. And unlike the debut of Harborplace, when former Mayor William Donald Schaefer was the cheerleader who goaded private property owners into action, not as much this time is spearheaded by public officials.

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