Urban experts focus on central district Development group hires analysts to draft plan to revitalize area


October 02, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

They've studied the east side of downtown. They've studied the west side of downtown. Now the urban experts are turning their attention to the area in between.

Seeking new ways to stimulate development in the heart of the city, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has launched a $180,000 effort to outline a strategic plan for the central business district, anchored by award-winning Charles Center.

The nonprofit group, which works to create a "cleaner, more prosperous and vibrant downtown," has hired Hammer Siler George and Associates of Silver Spring to complete an economic analysis of the central business district and Design Collective of Baltimore to prepare a plan to guide physical development there.

Recent private investments by companies such as Rite Aid and Chevy Chase Bank and the acquisition of One Charles Center by attorney Peter Angelos are all signs that the area continues to demonstrate vitality, said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership.

"Today's strong real estate market, with national investors increasingly considering urban properties, provides an ideal time examine ways to build on the area's strengths and address its opportunities," she said.

The study was commissioned this year for a 35-block area bounded roughly by Lombard Street on the south, Liberty Street on the west, Saratoga Street on the north and South Street and Guilford Avenue on the east. It also encompasses the 200 to 500 blocks of North Charles Street.

The area includes public spaces such as Hopkins Plaza and Center Plaza and privately owned properties such as the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the Munsey Building and the Southern Hotel.

Dominic Wiker, small business assistance manager for the Downtown Partnership, said the group has noticed a disparity between the bustling Inner Harbor, with its high property values and occupancy rates, and the blocks just north of the waterfront, where vacancy rates are higher and there is not as much investment activity.

According to a 1997 report, more than $1 billion of investment activity is occurring downtown, but less than 10 percent of that amount is targeted toward the central business district.

Wiker said the Downtown Partnership wants its consultants to recommend ways to "take advantage of the development momentum along Pratt Street and encourage it" in the central business district."

The planning process also is designed to provide a framework for removing obstacles that limit growth, such as a shortage of off-street parking. Questions to be addressed by the Strategic Plan include:

How can retail development along Charles Street be reinvigorated?

How can the open spaces downtown be used to their full potential?

What buildings are vital to maintaining the area's historic character?

How strong is the demand for housing, retail and commercial space?

How can Redwood Street reclaim its former prominence as a central artery in the district?

Two other groups also have been seeking new ways to jump-start development.

The East Side Task Force, a group of property owners and institutions, has studied ways to link neighborhoods east of downtown with the Inner Harbor waterfront. And the West Side Task Force, a group of property owners and institutions led by the Weinberg Foundation, this summer unveiled a plan that calls for $350 million of redevelopment on 18 blocks on the west side of downtown.

The Downtown Partnership will sponsor a free public forum on the Central Business District Strategic Plan at noon Tuesday at the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Charles and Saratoga streets.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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