Area eyed for revival

Proposal made for African-American cultural district

Sen. Mitchell leads plan

Architecture firm studying plausibility

June 24, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A dilapidated four block area of downtown Baltimore's west side would be recast into an African-American nightclub and entertainment district, under a proposal by a group of city legislators led by state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV.

The project, met with guarded optimism by some area merchants, aims to revive a mostly run-down and boarded-up retail area bordered by Saratoga, Franklin, Park and Eutaw streets and let black business people share in the Inner Harbor's economic boom.

"Our dream is to take an area that is basically dead and make it a tourist draw that will help the city as a whole as well as the African-American community," said Mitchell, chairman of the Governor's Task Force on Increasing African-American Entrepreneurship in Baltimore City, during a tour of the area yesterday.

At the center of the proposed African-American Cultural and Entertainment District are 16 empty buildings in the 300 and 400 blocks of Howard St. that the city bought for more than $1 million during the mid-1990s.

The administration of former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wanted to turn the buildings into artist studios and loft apartments and create an "Avenue of the Arts." The project failed.

Mitchell's 10-member group, which includes state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and several minority business owners, has hired the state's largest architecture firm, RTKL Associates, to study whether the area could be converted into a New Orleans-style nightclub, jazz and restaurant district.

"Imagine this whole area full of life - with lights and music coming from the buildings and the sidewalks full of people," said Mitchell, as he led a group of reporters and business people on a walk past ornate, century-old storefronts with boards over them and past a heap of trash.

The Baltimore-based architecture firm, which received a $163,600 contract from the state Board of Public Works on Dec. 15, hopes to complete its study by October so Mitchell's group can approach the state and city for support.

The proposal calls for the city to condemn buildings in the area that it doesn't already own, take control of them and evict the tenants.

This is the same process that the city is following for its $350 million redevelopment project focused a few blocks south, where Bank of America and the Weinberg Foundation are proposing to build hundreds of apartments and dozens of shops.

The goal of the African-American entertainment district would be to create 50 percent minority ownership of the cafes, clubs, restaurants and shops in the area, Mitchell said. Such minorities might include not only blacks but Latinos, Koreans and others, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he would like to create a development corporation, to offer technical assistance and perhaps grants and low-interest loans to minority entrepreneurs.

Consultants are compiling a list of more than 200 black-owned city businesses, hoping to invite them to move into the area, said Donald Zuchelli, a director with ZHA Inc. of Annapolis, which is working with RTKL on the project.

The neighborhood in past decades was largely Chinese-American, and a few Chinese restaurants and markets remain, along with electronics stores, a liquor store, hair salon, African restaurant, French restaurant and many empty buildings.

Mitchell said that Chinese and other ethnic restaurants might fit into the new district, because people heading out to jazz clubs and dance clubs will want to choose from a diversity of eateries.

The proposal for a district half-owned by minority businesses comes at a time when judges nationally have been challenging government affirmative action programs.

U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis in December told Baltimore to cease enforcing its minority set-aside law for public works contracts. The city is fighting the ruling.

Mitchell said the proposed African-American cultural district would try to create an environment that would try to lure minority businesses and draw customers from all racial and income groups.

Dwight Miles, an art dealer who is a member of Mitchell's task force, said he believes the area will be most likely to succeed if it welcomes everyone.

"I know it is being set up as an African-American business area, and I support that," said Miles, who attended yesterday's tour. "But I hope they make efforts to reach out to all groups and to be inclusive. Because that's what is most likely to be successful."


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.