Adding sizzle to Charles Village

May 24, 2002

IT'S A BIT of a mystery why the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus has never spawned a vibrant student village. After all, offbeat coffeehouses, bookstores and jeans emporiums ring campuses in many other cities.

But now, this could happen in Baltimore as well. The university is seeking a private developer for an L-shaped parcel of land bounded by North Charles, 33rd, 34th and St. Paul streets. Once an existing garage and an assortment of apartment buildings are razed, a mid-rise student housing complex is planned for the site, anchored by a big bookstore, university offices and ground-floor retailers. Projected completion date: 2005.

This kind of investment in Charles Village is welcome - and long overdue. But it is not enough. Additional retail must also be brought to the 3200 block of St. Paul St.

A City Council planned unit development ordinance six years ago authorized just that. But although developer C. William Struever has plans for the block, nothing has been announced. It's time for him, too, to reveal his cards.

The slow pace of retail transformation is particularly puzzling because Charles Village, a community largely made up of Victorian rowhouses, has come a long way in residential revitalization.

However, the retail strip continues to be limited to a single block on St. Paul Street. There is a gourmet food store, a florist and a handful of eateries, but that's not nearly enough variety or services to satisfy the residents' needs.

As a consequence, a second retail corridor has been developing in the past few years along 25th Street. Its anchors include a big supermarket and video emporium. More stores are being planned.

The Johns Hopkins redevelopment announcement brings all this to a sharper focus - and with a timetable that leaves little room for delays.

The university needs to relocate its campus bookstore and a number of other non-academic users to new quarters by 2005 so that Gilman Hall can be renovated. In order to meet that deadline, an outside developer would finance the construction of the L-shaped complex on the Hopkins-owned parcel. Various university operations would later lease space from that developer.

This break with Hopkins' past in-house construction practices puts the project on a fast track. This is good.

After years of talk, the Charles Village retail expansion finally has been set in motion. If it's done right, it could add some much-needed sizzle to this important center-city neighborhood.

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