Will Baltimore let wrecking ball knock out more of its history?

February 12, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

I WALKED SOUTH along Eutaw Street this week and observed the future of this neighborhood -- automobile garages with bland apartment houses stacked on top. These structures are new, clean and, I guess, efficient. But spare me from dwelling in one of these dreary containers.

This, I'm afraid, is what the next decade holds for the much discussed West Side of downtown Baltimore.

What scares me about the bold plans being rolled out for this surviving and battered chunk of old Baltimore is that when rebuilt, these blocks will wind up resembling the boring, peopleless district we call the Charles Center and so many of the Inner Harbor's dreary side streets.

I tremble when the builders and architects enter the room. Empowered by the right of eminent domain, these are the people who make the old city disappear, replacing it with apartment towers worthy of the East Berlin of 1971.

Automobile-stacking devices appear too -- let us not forget that both Hopkins and Center plazas downtown are merely landscaped lids for the garages underneath -- and the small buildings and their shop fronts vanish. What was once a sandwich shop becomes a large hole in the wall marked "Exit" with a kiosk to pay $9 a day to park.

For two years now, this side of Baltimore, the western edge of the old downtown shopping district, has been in the news. First there was the move to renovate the Hippodrome Theatre, the 1914 playhouse on Eutaw Street. Con- sultants and politicians want to make it into some sort of Kennedy Center-like entertainment Xanadu -- which I guess is fine, if you have a lot of money.

If you really want a chill, just walk around the parts of Baltimore reconstructed in the 1960s and '70s. The Charles Center has aged poorly. And the Inner Harbor, save for the parts with water views, is not much better.

(When the Lyric-Meyerhoff neighborhood was renovated, the planners, real estate interests and others sat back and allowed far too many of the Mount Royal neighborhood's surrounding buildings to be torn down. What a more welcoming and successful spot this would be if there were more on the street here, with small structures -- apartments above -- with retail joints.)

While walking down Eutaw Street this week, I went by a similar clutter of delightful city buildings in the Seton Hill neighborhood. These places -- once in wretched shape -- were restored in the 1980s. And while the whole neighborhood is not as busy today as similar 19th century parts of Fells Point and Federal Hill, the Seton Hill chunk of Eutaw Street appears to be paying its own taxes and upkeep.

It is possible to save a neighborhood without destroying it. Didn't Baltimore developer C. William Struever keep the American Can Co. in Canton, when others wanted it flattened?

I'm aware that Baltimore city government relies upon its real estate tax base. All parts of the center core have to contribute. And something has to be done to make Eutaw, Lexington and Baltimore streets presentable.

But wait. Haven't we learned anything since Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro the Elder started the crane that wrecked the old O'Neill's department store building to make way for the Charles Center?

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