Blockbuster brewing on Howard Street

Joint venture: $123 million revitalization plan will test imagination of city's new leadership.

September 30, 1999

GRID Properties is not a household name in Baltimore. It is in New York and Philadelphia, though, where the company is constructing two important commercial revitalization projects -- Harlem USA and Jump Street USA.

Teaming up with Grid Properties, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation is negotiating with Baltimore officials about a proposal that would bring national-brand retailers, a 10-screen movie theater, offices, 345 apartments and 960 parking spaces to the old Lexington Mall shopping strip. The $123 million complex would encompass four blocks that stretch from Howard and Lexington streets to Fayette Street and north along Liberty Street. Several landmarks, including the old Stewart's department store, would be restored but many other buildings would be replaced.

These negotiations come at a critical time in efforts to revitalize the west side of downtown:

A new umbrella group, Westside Renaissance, will be formed tomorrow to work with the next mayor and the city's Baltimore Development Corp.

The University of Maryland Medical Center will break ground Monday on a $145 million hospital addition. It is the latest project in a program that has funneled $1.5 billion to constructing academic and medical facilities on the campus.

Redwood Towers, the area's first new apartment building, is set to open its 151 units in January. It was built on top of a Eutaw Street garage.

In brief, the city's long-troubled former department store district sits on the cusp of a revival. The University of Maryland downtown campus, which has been built out, is gradually converging with Howard Street which, in turn, is extending toward Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, which are growing together.

All this would be bolstered if Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the legislature would allocate funds next year to restore the Hippodrome Theater into a regional performing arts center. The city is not waiting for action from Annapolis, however. It is scrutinizing proposals from three rival development groups that want to reconstruct the Sunny's Surplus block opposite the old vaudeville house on Eutaw Street.

The beauty of all this is in the many positive forces that are contributing to the momentum along Howard Street. The next mayor and City Council must take advantage of this unusual opportunity to resuscitate a deteriorated section of downtown Baltimore.

The Weinberg/Grid proposal will test the acumen of the new City Hall leadership.

Grid comes to Baltimore with a proven record. It has built apartments as well as office towers.

The $66.2 million Harlem USA, which will open late this year, brings to upper Manhattan's blighted 125th Street shopping area a Disney Store, Old Navy, fitness center, indoor amusement park and a nine-screen theater.

A similar renewal complex, Jump Street USA, is in the works for the north Philadelphia area near Temple University.

Construction of the $58 million complex is scheduled to start early next year.

Both projects have undergone numerous changes at the design stage. This has not always been easy for New York and Philadelphia officials. Grid's philosophy of tailoring spaces for tenants may present challenges to Baltimore Development Corp. as well.

Weinberg's role also must be better understood. Nonprofit foundations rarely want to be developers. However, the late Harry Weinberg, a crafty bottom fisher, effectively forbade his foundation from selling the downtown real estate he accumulated. That's why the billion-dollar foundation finds itself in the unusual position of seeking property-tax relief for the Howard Street proposal.

Weinberg Foundation's participation has to be carefully explained to city taxpayers and politicians.

Harlem USA and Jump Street USA became a reality because they enjoyed the strong backing of the mayors in New York and Philadelphia. The support of Baltimore's next chief executive is paramount to the success of the projects taking shape here.

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