SOMETHING REALLY big - and good - is about to explode in downtown Baltimore, if Mayor Martin O'Malley and the preservationists don't snuff the fuse.
Just a year ago, Mayor O'Malley rashly gave historic preservationists veto powers over demolition in the Howard Street redevelopment area. Now, quite unexpectedly, Target and Marshall's want to open stores there.
Insiders say these aren't done deals. If the chains don't get what they like, their site selectors will move on to more welcoming areas. In that case, Baltimore would miss out on the new jobs these stores promise - and the badly needed tax revenues they'd generate.
The interest from Target and Marshall's has city officials and real estate brokers exhilarated: Baltimore could finally reverse the retail exodus of the past three decades that has left the city without department stores or "big box" retailers.
Indeed, west-side revitalization would move into high gear if Target and Marshall's moved there. Retailers are like lemmings; no one wants to be left behind.
But insiders are also exasperated. They fear Howard Street's preservation guidelines are too restrictive. Unless they can be modified, the big fish may get away.
Marshall's wants to lease the ground floor of the old Stewart's department store, the white landmark at Howard and Lexington streets. Lease negotiations are at an advanced stage but could still hit snags because the space is somewhat smaller than the chain would prefer.
Target may present an even bigger challenge. It is interested in using the whole "superblock" that fronts on Howard Street and is bounded by Lexington, Park Avenue and Fayette Street. Target has little experience with inner-city stores and even less with rehabs of older buildings. Most of its stores are in newly constructed buildings - which, according to Mayor O'Malley's agreement with the preservationists, would be largely prohibited.
City officials have presented the company with drawings that suggest how a store can be built without upsetting historic preservationists. Target has not responded.
The chains' interest in Howard Street reflects their belief that the ambitious west-side redevelopment will bring the area not only more apartments but more buying power as well.
Reconstruction is gaining momentum. Within months, ground should be broken on the Bank of America's $60 million Centerpoint apartment complex, just southwest of the superblock Target wants.
Construction is also about to begin on the Hippodrome performing arts center. The University of Maryland's new law school is nearing completion, and the medical system is eyeing the 300 block West Baltimore Street for acquisition.
These are signs of hope. Baltimore missed much of the 1990s investment boom that benefited downtowns in many other big cities.
For decades, underserved city residents kept praying for national discount stores so they would not have to do their shopping in the counties. Now that this prayer may be answered, Mayor O'Malley owes it to taxpayers to make sure the opportunity is not lost.