Group seeks retail boom

Association wants to spur renaissance for Charles Street

It's all `right here'

Members' objectives are to lure firms, create business hub

March 04, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A shuttle running from the Inner Harbor to the Walters Art Gallery. The half-vacant Charles Plaza demolished to make room for a shopping center. Empty buildings near the Charles Theatre transformed into a lively entertainment district.

These are among the dreams of a nonprofit corporation formed by some of the city's most powerful business officials this week to attract stores and restaurants to Charles Street, Baltimore's avenue of high culture and half-frustrated hopes.

The Historic Charles Street Renaissance Corporation, backed by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, Allfirst bank Chairman Frank Bramble and others, hopes to rouse the street from a stagnation some say settled in after city officials in 1990 disbanded a similar group that helped the street surge in the 1980s.

Mayor Martin O'Malley contributed $25,000 in city money to the new organization, adding to $50,000 contributed by the state, $50,000 by Angelos and $50,000 by the Aegon/Monumental Life Insurance Corp., group officials said.

"What we have on Charles Street is what the suburban counties are trying to re-create in their malls, such as the The Avenue in White Marsh," said Michele Whelley, acting director of the Downtown Partnership business organization and a board member of the group.

"We don't need to re-create it, we have it all right here -- arts, culture, restaurants, stores," Whelley said. "What we want to do is strengthen Charles Street and market it as more of a viable location for retail."

The organization, which will be based in Downtown Partnership's offices at 217 N. Charles St., will create a plan to fill in gaps along the street's mostly healthy stretch from Pratt Street to North Avenue.

Among the group's priorities:

Creating a shuttle bus to draw Inner Harbor tourists north to the Mount Vernon cultural district and other areas of Charles Street.

Attracting stores and restaurants to what might become a 100,000-square-foot retail complex proposed to replace the failing Charles Plaza at Charles and Saratoga.

Creating a park ringed by stores in the barren cement plot known as Center Plaza, at Charles and Fayette streets.

Persuading developers to build shops and restaurants in place of parking lots on Charles Street north of Read Street.

Filling the vacant Chesapeake Restaurant and other empty buildings near the Charles Theatre and the proposed Greyhound bus terminal at Lanvale Street.

The Historic Charles Street Renaissance Corp. has a 22-member board of directors that includes community group leaders, university directors, a life insurance executive, a developer and a restaurant owner.

A similar organization, called the Charles Street Management Corp., attracted about $500 million in investment to the street from 1985 to 1990, before then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke dissolved it to create the Downtown Partnership, which has the broader focus of serving the whole downtown, said Jimmy Rouse, president of the Charles Street Association merchants group.

In the early 1900s, the street was lined with upscale stores and nightclubs. But the street lost some of its glamour in the 1950s, when suburban malls drew away customers, and it almost died after riots in 1968.

During the birth of the Inner Harbor in the 1980s, Charles Street flourished. But the 1990s saw declining property values and a mixture of successes and failures.

"The last decade has really been a roller-coaster ride for Charles Street," said Rouse. "We need to create a concentration of enough quality merchants to draw the tourists up from the Inner Harbor and make the whole area thrive."

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