Seeking Tall Ships for the west side

Urban Chronicle

Development: Experts see parallels in the history of the Inner Harbor.

April 04, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

IF YOU want a benchmark of where the west side is in terms of its development, think of the Inner Harbor before Harborplace opened in 1980, putting Baltimore on the cover of Time magazine.

Or, better yet, before the Tall Ships sailed into town as part of the country's bicentennial celebration in 1976, drawing a million visitors to the waterfront.

That, at least, is the view of Ron Kreitner, Mark Sissman and Mark Wasserman -- three key players on the west side who also played important roles in the Inner Harbor.

And though they're in a sense paid to be cheerleaders, they profess to see important parallels between the west side and Inner Harbor, both in the early sense of skepticism of whether redevelopment could work and its potential for success.

"The public didn't accept the harbor as an asset until the Tall Ships came to town," said Kreitner. "Suddenly, it was seen as this place that had this tremendously broad appeal."

Kreitner, a city planner when the Inner Harbor was conceived, is executive director of Westside Renaissance Inc., a private organization to promote the redevelopment of the area between downtown and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Sissman, then a deputy city housing commissioner, is now head of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which plans to reopen the restored Hippodrome Theater in time for the 2003-2004 theater season.

Wasserman, a development coordinator under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, is senior vice president of the University of Maryland Medical System.

Circumstance -- and opportunity -- has reunited them on the west side.

Wasserman is one who sees the west side as where the harbor was "slightly before 1976."

"There's been no galvanizing event," he said.

Maybe not, but there have been a series of smaller happenings, such as the erection of construction fences around properties slated for redevelopment. In that sense, the scheduled appearance of a construction crane this spring at the site of Centerpoint, Bank of America's square-block retail and residential project, is being looked upon as a milestone.

All three agree that part of the problem in convincing people that the west-side renewal is for real is that so much of the development is rehabilitation, not demolition and new construction.

"People don't see the progress," said Sissman. "It's easier to see progress when you're tearing buildings down than from the inside out."

Sissman said he spends "a lot of time just walking people through the theater" to show them what's being done. He said his tours are convincing. "People believe we're building a theater," he said.

A quarter of a century ago, the three say, people had to be convinced that the harbor could be a place to eat, shop, work and live. Indeed, Sissman recalls that banks had to be persuaded to loan money to rehabbers in Otterbein, now one of the city's most attractive residential neighborhoods.

As Wasserman put it, in the west-side revitalization, "We're all being challenged to broaden our definition of downtown."

Kreitner acknowledges "there are people who are strongly skeptical" of whether that can be done.

"Some of that skepticism is tied not so much to the west side per se but to whether or not Baltimore can really have a downtown area that serves the full range of population within the city and the region," he said. "That's what the west side is trying to do."

Just as the Inner Harbor had pre-Harborplace development in the form of the Maryland Science Center and the Hyatt Regency, so the west side has had investment in the refurbishing of the old Hecht's and Stewart's department stores into apartments and offices.

In making the case for the west side, these three veterans of urban revitalization argue that assets like the subway and light rail stations, not to mention the stadiums to the south, make revitalization an attractive proposition.

And while they acknowledge the west side has to overcome its public perception as a graveyard of failed projects -- remember Howard Street as a proposed Avenue of the Arts? -- not to mention lingering nostalgia for bygone days when the west side was the center of the city's retail activity, they say more progress has been made than is generally believed.

Wasserman puts the reinvestment by the University of Maryland complex at $500 million, ranging from the Institute for Human Virology to a new law school.

And Sissman points to the beginnings of a rental housing market since a new plan for the revitalization of the west side was unveiled in 1998.

"That's a pretty significant change in four years," he said. "We didn't know a housing market was here."

When the Hippodrome's renovation is complete, projections are it will be open 200 nights and sell 410,000 tickets in the first year, Sissman said.

"That's a lot of people," Sissman said. "The theater can be the first magnet for the west side.

"Maybe we're the Tall Ships," he added.

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