In Baltimore, west side displays signs of new life

Four companies ready to move in

20-screen movie complex planned

June 06, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The large-scale plan to redevelop Baltimore's west side is showing some early signs of success, with four high-tech companies planning to move into an empty building, a developer proposing a 20-screen movie theater and more than 900 apartments on the way.

But the city's most significant urban renewal project since the rebirth of the Inner Harbor is running into political turbulence.

State officials responsible for paying for a crucial element of the plan -- the $50 million restoration of the vaudeville-era Hippodrome Theater -- are demanding that the city form a development corporation devoted to boosting the west side project.

City officials, however, oppose the creation of a quasi-public agency for this purpose, arguing that it would be redundant and too expensive for a city starving for cash.

On the line in the debate is a $350 million plan designed to breathe life into a corridor of half-empty buildings that once formed the heart of the city's shopping district.

Here are some of the plans for the new west side:

The Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has proposed converting the old Stewart's department store on Howard Street into a telemarketing center.

The organization also wants to convert five adjacent blocks into a complex with a 20-screen movie theater, 400 parking spaces, more than 300 apartments, and 200,000 square feet of shops and restaurants geared toward urban shoppers and young professionals, according to officials familiar with the project.

The foundation has said it would try to preserve some of the historically significant stores along Howard and Lexington streets.

Colorado-based Level 3 Communications Co., which plans to bury a 330-mile network of fiber-optic cables across the state, is spending $10 million to create a 25-employee headquarters on the third floor of the formerly vacant One Market Center building next to the Lexington Market.

It is one of four telecommunications companies that have signed leases to rent 85,000 square feet of the 135,000-square-foot building. The owners are negotiating with other communications firms who might soon fill the seven-story office and retail building, said Richard Polan, an agent for the Murdock Management Co.

Four development companies have proposed building more than 900 apartments in buildings on Howard and Eutaw streets, with the 151-unit Redwood Towers at Eutaw and Redwood under construction, according to city planners.

The University System of Maryland is planning an $83 million emergency medicine building on Lombard Street, new law and dental schools on Baltimore Street, a $67 million research laboratory on Pine Street and the conversion of a former bank building on Eutaw Street into offices for research companies.

The six-story health science laboratory is expected to create 612 jobs for researchers, assistants and lab technicians, according to university officials.

City officials have been negotiating with "several NBA teams" about the possibility of moving to Baltimore and helping to pay for an 18,000-seat replacement for the Baltimore Arena, according to city Planning Director Charles Graves.

Although no teams have committed, a few have "expressed interest" in the $200 million project, Graves said.

Public, private cooperation

Graves said that the effort to revitalize the west side is more likely to succeed than attempts during the 1970s and '80s because public and private sectors are joining forces.

"I think the private sector is rediscovering opportunities in urban areas across the country, and we are hoping to take advantage of that," Graves said.

David Roop, local director of Level 3 Communications, said he sees a new identity for the formerly vacant shops and offices of One Market Center. "They used to sell briefs and boxers here," Roop said. "Now we are selling bits and bytes of information."

The concept of a sweeping urban renewal program that would wipe away more than 100 buildings in an 18-block area has provoked mixed reactions.

Supporters describe it as the city's last chance to extend the Inner Harbor's success deeper into the city.

Some preservationists and advocates for local merchants, however, worry that the city's historic look and stores run by immigrants for the poor will be pushed aside by upscale shops and apartments for university students.

Tyler Gearhart, director of Preservation Maryland, said that the city should create a historic district to offer tax breaks to developers who promised to spare historic buildings.

"For the city to ignore the creation of an historic district would be a mistake, because these kinds of districts have been key to the success of downtown rehabilitation projects in Denver, Boston, New Orleans and other cities," Gearhart said.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., however, warned that creating a historic district might frighten away developers crucial to the success of the project.

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