Alvin Levi has seen and heard it all on Howard Street.
The steady slide of the commercial district in the 1960s. California developer David Murdock's unfulfilled promise to reverse the skid in the 1980s. Misguided government-led efforts such as the failed Lexington Street pedestrian mall.
But now the 55-year-old proprietor of Howard Street Jewelers between Fayette and Lexington streets is convinced that what he calls "false messianic hopes" are a thing of the past on downtown's timeworn west side.
This month, Bank of America held a groundbreaking ceremony for its $70 million Centerpoint retail, residential and parking complex a half-block away. Last week, backers of the Hippodrome Theater's $62.7 million conversion to a Broadway playhouse said the public and private financing is nearly set.
"I think the future of the west side has now changed from idealistic optimism to a joyous reality," Levi says. These major projects "are making yesterday's dreams a reality."
No one can dispute the importance of these two projects to an area running roughly from Pratt to Centre streets and bracketed by the University of Maryland and Charles Street. Firm plans for a gleaming 2,250-seat theater and 394 unsubsidized apartments, with first-floor shops and restaurants, are cause for celebration.
But even if the theater's doors open in 2004 as planned, a giant swathe of the west side will be what it is today: a neglected area of discount stores and beeper shops serving mostly low-income people. That population needs goods and services, but some say the city would prefer they get them somewhere else.
So, even as the progress is cheered, questions remain:
Will Centerpoint and the Hippodrome succeed? Will enough people pay between $750 and $2,000 a month to live at Howard and Fayette streets? Will theater patrons feel safe?
Will the projects spur the kind of trickle-down development city officials count on to lift the area? And will the city keep investing on the front end, as it did with Centerpoint to the tune of $23 million?
More broadly, can the west side shake its reputation as a seedy place many city residents try to avoid?
Even the biggest boosters admit that much is left to do. "By no means" is this the time to let up, says Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., a business-led advocacy group.
"Dozens of blocks" are crying out for attention, he said. "We're looking at many blocks that can be built out in a fashion similar to Centerpoint." He envisions big-dollar investments aimed at creating residences and street-level shops, using a mix of new construction and rehabilitation.
The goal is ambitious: 3,000 new residential units. With the university and its medical system close - and pushing closer - students, staff and faculty are all possible patrons. Others include young professionals who could walk to work downtown or to Washington-bound trains.
By moving further off the drawing board and proving skeptics wrong, Centerpoint and the Hippodrome might help to turn the tide of skepticism.
"For three years, I listened to comments and innuendoes: `Well you know, that's never going to happen, John,' " says John Morton III, president of Bank of America Mid-Atlantic Region. "Those kinds of comments come from people who just don't see the future."
Mark Sissman, who has led the Hippodrome effort for the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, says, "This is a project that day in and day out has to overcome skepticism."
"There is nothing like dirt moving," says Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie.
The area is a long way from becoming a neighborhood, though. Basics such as restaurants and cafes are nonexistent; there is no supermarket. Lexington Market throbs with life and is undergoing a $3.5 million facelift, but loiterers and trash outside diminish its appeal.
Police have opened a substation a block from the market, but Levi says problems persist, particularly at night when young people hoot and holler while cruising up and down the street. And the shooting death of 19-year-old Rio-Jarrell Tatum on North Paca Street - the result of a holdup that netted $10 - fans fears about safety, despite assurances from police that violent crime is almost nil.
Still, other projects are in the works elsewhere on the west side. Developer Wendy Blair hopes to put 74 apartments in boarded-up buildings in the 400 block of North Howard.
Some new apartments have opened down the street. The Atrium at Market Center has 173 units in the former Hecht's store at Howard and Lexington. It is about half full, says developer David Hillman. The old Congress Hotel on Franklin Street is now an apartment building.