Two views developed on west side renewal

Preservationists condemn plan to demolish buildings

June 28, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Competing theories of urban redevelopment may be headed for a collision on Howard Street, Baltimore's boulevard of broken schemes.

What might be termed the big-bang theory for renewing the city's rotting retail district says developers won't risk $350 million building hundreds of apartments and shops unless they have freedom to be creative and are allowed to demolish scores of buildings, if necessary.

Another approach, which might be termed the SoHo theory, holds that such large-scale demolition is doomed to fail because distinctive architecture is the only advantage urban areas hold over the boring but convenient suburbs.

This school of thought draws its inspiration from once-depressed urban districts like SoHo in New York City and lower downtown Denver, which are thriving because the renovation of older buildings has attracted hip young people and childless older couples.

The path Baltimore will take might soon become clear. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke set in motion last month a plan to redevelop the west side of downtown by signing a law that allows the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-governmental body, to condemn 110 buildings in an 18-block area and sell them to developers.

City officials, preservationists and developers are debating which theory is best for the economic revival of the west side. They are also asking whether too many demands to save century-old buildings might scare away investors and highly prized retail chains.

Charles C. Graves III, the city's director of planning, said the final approach will likely combine both schools of thought.

The widespread use of condemnation approved by the mayor and City Council last month will give developers flexibility to think of ways to lure tenants.

But Graves said the city plans to move slowly and to preserve the most valuable historic buildings -- if it is economically feasible.

"We are not going to be doing wholesale demolition," Graves said. "Demolition will only come after we have very detailed plans from developers for each parcel. And if there are historic properties, I would be very much interested in trying to integrate them into the new development."

No matter what approach emerges, it is likely to face a rough ride on a street that has seen at least four revival plans fail since the growth of suburban malls killed the city's department stores.

Strolling past the pawnshops and vacant storefronts of Howard Street is like taking a tour through a museum of bankrupt revitalization theories.

The first exhibit: the Lexington Street pedestrian mall, a street of clothing stores and five-and-dime shops, which the city closed to traffic in the early 1970s, following a national trend. Now the city is studying the possible return of cars to boost business.

Next came the hooplike arches of light bulbs -- many of them long ago burned out -- that rise over the street. The city erected these in 1986 to encourage shoppers after the opening of a subway station. The area was renamed the Howard Street Transit Mall.

The city dug up Howard Street in 1988 to build a light rail system track down its center -- another move business leaders hoped would lift the area.

Finally, at the north end of Howard Street stand the "Avenue of the Arts" street signs near the boarded-up Mayfair Theater. The city raised these in 1993 as part of an unsuccessful effort to encourage artists to fill apartments and studios in the area.

The city's new redevelopment plan would displace many of the T-shirt vendors and beeper salesmen who repopulated the first floor of largely empty buildings after large department stores, including Stewart's and Hutzler's, closed in the 1970s and 1980s.

The project seeks to renovate the vaudeville-era Hippodrome Theater with $50 million in state funds, and perhaps replace the Baltimore Arena at a cost of $200 million, with the hope of luring a National Basketball Association team.

Anchored by these large projects and the expansion of the neighboring University of Maryland, Baltimore, developers would build more than 900 apartments, a telemarketing center, dozens of shops and restaurants and maybe a multiscreen movie theater, according to city development officials.

Although the redevelopment plan allows for condemnation, it also demands the preservation of the area's most significant structures, including the old Hecht's and Stewart's department store buildings, the Baltimore Equitable Society building at 21 N. Eutaw St. and the American National Bank at 100-104 W. Lexington St.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, warned that several important buildings are at risk and that the character of the neighborhood would be lost if only a few historic structures remain amid sterile contemporary architecture.

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