Highlandtown taking shape as new arts district

Officials to nominate area for government program

April 01, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

In Highlandtown, the arts are percolating at the Creative Alliance on South Conkling Street, a small performance, cafe, studio and class space resembling an early-1960s Greenwich Village folk singers hangout.

A few blocks away, at East Street and Eastern Avenue, stands the unfinished Patterson Center for the Arts, a $4 million public works revitalization project. Renovating the former Patterson Theater is expected to conclude next year, with nine new live-in studios for artists in residence.

City officials predict these venues will help shape Baltimore's second arts and entertainment district, designed to attract a community of actors, writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers and other kindred spirits to a defined area. The city plans to nominate a 115-acre chunk of Patterson Park-Highlandtown today in a state competition for designation as an arts district.

Among several criteria for selection, a state panel will evaluate the community's demonstrated capacity for generating urban and economic revitalization.

If the city's choice is approved by a state panel next month, this rectangular patch of Southeast Baltimore real estate will join Station North, a 100-acre midtown area anchored by Pennsylvania Station, which the state designated in December.

In the government program launched last year, tax incentives will be offered to artists who live and work in the district and to developers who build or renovate living and working quarters in the area. Station North was chosen first in a field of seven competitors last fall, and the Southeast proposal was judged worthy to be the next city nomination, mayoral aide J. Kirby Fowler Jr. said.

Some state taxes - on property and admissions or amusement tickets - will be lowered in the arts districts July 1, and a state income tax break will take effect Jan. 1, state officials said.

Hope is running high here.

"There's a lot of energy on [Eastern] Avenue and the vacant homes are ideal for [artist] galleries or residences," Fowler told a gathering at the nonprofit Creative Alliance last week as he explained the program, which offers tax incentives over 10 years.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, inspired to pursue the program by a successful revival model in Providence, R.I., has said he believes it is bound to enliven and enrich the city by fostering clusters of creativity and investment.

"I've heard it said that artists are the marines of economic development," O'Malley said in a recent interview.

While Providence was the closest model for the Maryland program, several cities have some form of an arts avenue or area, including Philadelphia, Dallas and Pittsburgh, state officials said.

The proposed district's boundaries would be South Ellwood Avenue and Haven, Fleet and Pratt streets, city and community officials said. The Patterson Center for the Arts is expected to become the anchor for the new arts area. The other major project on the horizon is a new regional Enoch Pratt Free Library branch, planned on the site of the vacant Grand Theater on South Conkling Street.

Word is spreading within the arts community that the streets of Highlandtown, with its thrift shops to its vast expanse of park with a fanciful pagoda, might be a good place to look for a house.

A transplant from Minneapolis, playwright Reagan Gibbs, 34, said he chose Baltimore over Washington earlier this year, sensing a friendlier environment for alternative artists.

He and his wife, Janice Campbell, bought a storefront rowhouse on East Street for living and workshop space for about $60,000. "My realtor told me, that's where things are going to be happening," he said.

Southeast Community Development Corp. and Creative Alliance made the application for the arts district. The two groups will help administer the program, city officials said.

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