Beginning of `big bang' for redevelopment?

Howard Street: The pieces may be coming together downtown, as long as politics don't get in the way

Agenda '99

Goals for the new year

January 07, 1999

A POTENTIALLY contentious election year in Baltimore -- with a lame-duck mayor and contests for City Council -- may not be the ideal time to execute a major redevelopment program. Yet a downtown revitalization strategy has to be implemented this year. Any delay may doom the city's best chance in decades to remake the old Howard Street retail corridor.

"Westside" is something of a misnomer for the Westside Master Plan, financed by the Weinberg Foundation. When it was released in June it involved 18 downtown blocks. In the past six months, the renewal area has more than doubled and now encompasses a quadrangle that roughly borders Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west, Lombard Street on the south, Park Avenue on the east and Biddle Street on the north.

The center of this zone is Howard Street, the one-time "Fifth Avenue of Baltimore" that took a nosedive in the 1970s and '80s. Its department stores and restaurants are long gone, although the empty retail palaces remain.

Over the years, several grandiose plans have been announced to pump life into the Howard Street corridor. All flopped.

The current effort has a better chance because of the unusual collection of players involved. The main ones are:

The Weinberg Foundation. It controls mostly vacant or underutilized Howard Street properties assembled in the 1950s and 1960s by the late Harry Weinberg, a real estate speculator and transit company liquidator. The foundation proposes to invest $71 million to rehabilitate those properties, including the landmark Stewart's department store building at Howard and Lexington streets.

The University of Maryland professional schools and medical institutions. The campus is in the midst of a $1 billion expansion. The university owns the old Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street, which has received Gov. Parris N. Glendening's endorsement -- and planning funds -- to become a regional performing arts center.

Peter Angelos, a lawyer and principal owner of the Baltimore Orioles, who is planning a new convention hotel in the area.

M. Jay Brodie, who oversaw much of the rebuilding of Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1980s and early 1990s. He heads the Baltimore Development Corp. and is Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's coordinator of economic revitalization projects.

There are other crucial players. The City Council must approve condemnation legislation that is at the heart of redevelopment efforts. The Maryland General Assembly also has to earmark funds to renovate the Hippodrome complex.

"1999 is a critical year," says Charles C. Graves III, Baltimore's planning chief, who has overseen the development of a citywide master plan that will be unveiled later this month.

The Howard Street corridor redevelopment strategy is to make the area desirable again through large-scale but selective demolition. A number of old stores and office buildings downtown already are targeted for conversion to apartments. Planners think this infusion of hundreds of consumers might persuade a "big-box" retailer more commonly found near suburban shopping malls to contemplate the Howard Street corridor.

Hopes about a Howard Street revival have been dashed so many times that it may seem imprudent to express optimism now. Yet recent changes are already inflating hopes.

The facelift of the Omni Hotel and Mr. Angelos' demolition of the old Hamburger's overhang, both on Fayette Street, show how relatively modest changes can produce dramatic improvements. Also, a mixed-income townhouse community rising along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is improving the site once covered by the Lexington Terrace public housing high-rises, which were dynamited.

The nearby Murphy Homes, another high-rise public housing complex, will be demolished in July, also to be replaced with townhouses. Most will sell at prices starting in the $80,000 range.

Nearly a decade ago, Mayor Schmoke, the business community and planners debated whether a "big bang" development could produce a critical mass of investment and energy in Baltimore's downtown. If the various private and public sector players do their part, this could be the year that "big bang" begins.

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