Time to get going on west side revival

Downtown: Special interests try to hijack Howard Street revitalization plans.

April 02, 2000

IT'S A GOOD THING the General Assembly will vote on the state's budget tomorrow. Maybe that will stop the recent posturing and wrangling over a plan to revitalize the western edge of downtown Baltimore.

No one claims to oppose the project, which promises to breathe new life into the city's old retail district along Howard Street, between Charles Center and the University of Maryland campus. But too many interest groups are insisting that it happen only on their terms.

After it began to look like the $350-million west side plan, announced just 18 months ago, might actually happen, this bevy of special interest groups ganged up to take it hostage. The groups, which range from preservationists to merchants to cultural interests, each presented demands:

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra wants guarantees that the renovated Hippodrome regional performing arts complex will not take business away from its Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Preservationists want veto power over any demolition of buildings in the 18-block renewal area, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed on the "most endangered" sites list. They also are demanding the right to reject any exterior changes to historic buildings.

Business owners targeted for relocation are fighting city take-over of their properties. They took their cue from an activist organization, Health Care for the Homeless, which last year persuaded the City Council to exempt its headquarters from condemnation.

These disparate lobbies adroitly figured out that freezing state funding for the Hippodrome Theater, a centerpiece of the plan, offered their best chance to wrest concessions. In the past two months, they've managed to get restrictive language inserted into budget bills so that their objectives could not be ignored. Late last week, Senate and House of Delegates negotiators were trying to hammer out a consensus so that the full $21 million allocation could be authorized.

As a result of all this lobbying, the city rightly has begun to take into account the concerns of the various groups. But at some point the wrangling has to stop and the brick-and-mortar revitalization effort must get under way.

Mayor Martin O'Malley should make it clear to the groups that they will not dictate the scope or pace of west side revitalization.

They had the chance to present concrete development plans when the city invited proposals for the renovation of the Hippodrome and the Lexington Mall. None did. Their belated carping should not be allowed to derail projects submitted by developers, who have spent time and money to get their projects off the ground.

The preservisionists' chief target has been the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, which wants to turn the old Stewart's department store on Howard Street and a nearby four-block area into a $123-million complex that would include big-name stores such as Sports Authority, movie theaters, apartments and garages.

The project involves some 50 buildings. The Weinberg proposal is to raze all but six of the architecturally notable ones. (The landmark art deco Kresge's building would be retained.) Preservationists are aghast. They insist that at least 30 buildings should be saved.

The preservationists' concern extends beyond individual buildings. They think the area derives its historic significance from a mixture of mercantile buildings of various ages, styles and purposes. They want to retain that character. Many preservationists also think the Weinberg redevelopment concept of big anchor stores is wrong. Instead, they want small shops in existing spaces.

Is there room for compromise? Perhaps. But flexibility is limited, with certain key elements of the overall plan moving forward.

The Weinberg Foundation has already started marketing 230,000 square feet of office and retail space in the Stewart's building. It was hoping to have the building ready for occupancy this June but is becoming frustrated by its dealings with the city.

Meanwhile, across from Stewart's, another developer is transforming the former Hecht's flagship store into a $15 million, 173-unit apartment building.

Closer to the Hippodrome, Bank of America is planning to build a $54 million, 365-apartment high-rise. Its design incorporates a number of historic buildings.

This promising momentum could stall unless Mayor O'Malley sees to it that the Weinberg project is allowed to move ahead, subject to normal design reviews. After a tortuous two decades of promises and false starts, it offers the best opportunity to return Howard Street to prominence as a shopping area.

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