Realistic goals key to plan downtown

New strategy draws praise from business for its pragmatism

October 27, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

All too often, plans to revitalize urban areas end up gathering dust on book shelves because they are more dreams than sober assessments of the future.

But a strategy for rejuvenating downtown Baltimore unveiled by the city's leading business organization yesterday is drawing praise from business leaders who say its pragmatism and lack of pie-in-the-sky visions will likely prove the key to its success.

The Downtown Partnership's 36-page Central Business District Plan does not call for monorail trains skimming above Charles Street. It does not reimagine the financial district as the Silicon Valley of the Chesapeake region.

The plan calls for the construction of three parking garages that are funded, but not built.

It demands an expansion of a video-camera crime-prevention system that has proved effective downtown.

It envisions a park with grass and trees in what is public space, the Center Plaza. It imagines 1,000 apartments in an area along Charles Street where 200 are on their way. And it calls for a new court -- now in the state budget -- to speed the prosecution of quality-of-life crimes such as aggressive panhandling and public drunkenness.

In short, the Central Business District Plan is winning raves because it is not too bold.

"I think it's a great plan because it is both achievable and will bring a lot of energy and new blood downtown," said Donald Manekin, a senior vice president with Manekin LLC real estate development and brokerage company.

"Now all the city and the business community have to do is put the money where their mouths are," said Manekin. "I really think we've got to pull the trigger and make this happen because successful urban areas make the whole regions around them so much stronger."

The cost of the proposals outlined by the Downtown Partnership has not been calculated. And both candidates for mayor -- Democrat Martin O'Malley and Republican David F. Tufaro -- have said they want to review the plan before making any promises.

Mark K. Joseph, chairman of the Shelter Group real estate development and management firm, is one of several city business leaders who said he's seeing signs of hope that investors are regaining their interest in the city center.

The proposal by the Weinberg Foundation and three other development firms to build hundreds of apartments and dozens of shops near Lexington Market and the Hippodrome Theater on the west side of downtown is one ray of hope, Joseph said.

Another reason for optimism is Peter G. Angelos' decisions to purchase and fix up two office buildings near his One Charles Center law offices and work with the Johns Hopkins University to create a center for continuing education in the Hamburger Building on Charles Street, Joseph said.

"It is important that the city not overlook its central business district in our excitement about the success of the Inner Harbor," said Joseph.

Bill Couper, president of the Greater Baltimore region of the Bank of America, said he's optimistic because the Downtown Partnership has a proven track record of succeeding in small but important programs to improve the quality of life in the center city.

The nonprofit organization, created in 1983 as the Charles Street Management Association, has 100 employees, a headquarters at 217 N. Charles St. and $4 million annual budget funded by tax on local businesses and contributions from the city and state.

In the mid-1980s, the organization focused on trying to lure retail stores to the North Charles Street area. After it changed its name to the Downtown Partnership and broadened its focus in 1990, it started programs to have unarmed security guards walking the streets downtown and monitoring video cameras mounted above Howard and Charles streets.

By the late 1990s, the group had started detailed studies of parking problems and economic conditions downtown. And in 1997, its members concluded that it needed to create a strategic plan to revitalize the business district because it was lagging behind the success of the Inner Harbor, according to organization officials.

"This plan is the most ambitious thing that we have done so far, but it builds on a logical evolution the organization has undertaken over the years," said Laurie Schwartz, director of the partnership.

One proposal in the Central Business District plan is to encourage the development of 1,000 more apartments along Charles Street south of Mount Vernon. Already, 208 are in the planning stages at 501 St. Paul St., 300 N. Charles St. and 333 N. Charles St.

Lisa Raimundo, director of business development for the partnership, said it's reasonable to conclude a market exists for at least another 792 because the recently renovated Gallery Towers at 111 W. Centre St. leased all of its 144 apartments shortly after it opened in May. A recent study by Hammer, Siler, George and Associates of Bethesda predicted a market appetite for perhaps 1,200 more units downtown.

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