Howard Street left in the dark

Merchants accuse city of shoddy maintenance in key neighborhood

July 08, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

How many Baltimore public works employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?

The question is being asked with a dark sense of humor by business owners in the struggling Howard Street retail corridor. They say they've been frustrated for months because of the city's failure to replace almost 300 burned-out globes in the ornamental arches over the street.

They also say the city has failed to maintain the area even while trying to persuade developers to build stores and apartments there as part of a $350 million project to renovate the west side of downtown.

Eighty percent of the 341 lights in the 29 arches spanning Howard from West Franklin to Pratt streets were burned out Tuesday night, giving the candy-canelike sculptures a look of rotted teeth. The city estimated the proportion to be more like 50 percent.

"It's almost like the city doesn't care," said Doug Sutphin, 34, a sales manager from Frederick, as he left the Orioles baseball game Tuesday night with his wife and looked down Howard Street.

Some shopkeepers in the area said potential investors in the west-side redevelopment plan might be discouraged if they get the impression the city doesn't perform routine housekeeping. They grumbled about the city's slowness in fixing sidewalks, carting away trash and discouraging panhandling.

"Maybe if the city did their job with these little things in the first place, we wouldn't need this whole west-side revitalization effort," said Mike Yim, owner of the Dollar House discount store. "When I see all those burned-out lights, I think: Who's in charge here? Nobody, it seems."

Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said the city replaces the light bulbs on Howard Street twice a year -- before Christmas and before Opening Day of the baseball season -- and might start doing it more often.

He said the city makes every effort to keep retail districts clean and well-lighted.

"If anyone says that we don't know about urban housekeeping and cleaning the city, they are wrong, because we are doing more than ever before," Kocher said. "If for some reason we have an unusual number of lights out, we will address that problem."

In 1986, the city and federal government together spent $6.5 million -- the cost of a new elementary school -- installing lights, bus shelters and brick sidewalks on Howard Street in an attempt to rejuvenate a retail district hurt by competition from suburban malls.

The city's most recent renewal plan for the area, approved by the City Council in May, allows for condemnation of 110 buildings in an 18-block area around Howard Street so developers can build hundreds of apartments and shops.

The lighted arches were meant to have a joyful look that suggested the arched windows in many downtown buildings.

`Look pretty grim'

David DuTot, an engineer with the Delta Group design firm of Philadelphia and designer of the arches, said yesterday that he is disturbed that the city has let his sculptures decay.

"Good grief," he said. "They were an attempt to improve the street's image, but without their lights they can look pretty grim. Obviously, the bulbs require replacing from time to time. Anyone who can replace a streetlight can replace these bulbs."

The hoops of light were a pet project of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who said yesterday that he would scold his public works director if he saw a single bulb burned out.

"We spent a lot of money and a lot of effort trying to rejuvenate Howard Street, but now the city has let it decay," said Schaefer, the state comptroller. "The current director of public works couldn't see trash if he tripped over it in the streets."

Public Works Director George G. Balog's spokesman, Kocher, defended his boss's performance.

"I strongly disagree with that," Kocher said.

In 1985, while Schaefer was mayor, the city cleaned 680 miles of city street lanes a week; today the city sweeps 2,000 miles, Kocher said. In 1985, the city had no harbor cleaners or alley sweepers; today the city has nine trash-skimming boats and four alley sweepers, Kocher said.

After The Sun inquired about the lights Tuesday, the Department of Public Works replaced about 20 of the burned-out bulbs, Kocher said.

Before the city can replace bulbs on some of the largest arches, the power to the light rail must be shut off so workers won't risk electrocution, Kocher said.

An extra tax

Because of their dissatisfaction with city services, downtown shopkeepers in 1990 agreed to pay extra taxes -- roughly $100 to $200 a year for a small store -- to create the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc., the nonprofit business-advocacy organization.

The group pays 45 purple-clad "public safety guides" to patrol Howard Street and nearby areas, pick up trash and encourage panhandlers to go to charitable organizations for food.

Laurie Schwartz, director of the partnership, said the group has no power to replace burned-out lights but has mentioned the lighting problem to the city several times.

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