Charles St. shops on fence about face lift

They agree area will look nice but fear construction might hurt business

October 09, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

If you want to scare Steve Appel this Halloween, sneak up and whisper, "One note card."

That is all he sold in an entire day recently at his Nouveau Contemporary Goods Inc. furniture store at 519 N. Charles St., south of the Washington Monument. The poor excuse for commerce occurred after his landlord temporarily shrouded the elegant building in scaffolds for a refacing.

Appel can only wonder, and worry, how a 70 percent drop in sales that he suffered over two weeks of renovation will compare with what's coming down the road.

The city and a business group have teamed up on a multimillion-dollar project to beautify a long six-block stretch of Charles Street, downtown's spine and once a chic shopping area whose fortunes in recent years have been as up and down as the hilly terrain.

"I believe we can make it through it, but we're definitely concerned," Appel said.

Having started at Charles and Lombard streets, workers are moving north, replacing concrete sidewalks with brick, putting in granite curbs, repaving bumpy streets and adding touches such as old-fashioned streetlights.

The $4.7 million first phase, from Lombard to Saratoga, is expected to be mostly done by December. A second phase, expected to have a similar price tag, from Saratoga to Centre - where Nouveau is located - should begin in the spring and could go until early 2004.

"It's part of the entire formula of upgrading and improving the environment of downtown, making it a more inviting place," said Bob Dengler of the Downtown Partnership, a business group helping to coordinate the work.

The goal is to compete with suburban areas such as White Marsh and Owings Mills, he said, adding that the work is not a panacea and that parking is still a problem.

There is widespread agreement that Charles Street will look better when the work is done. But other questions remain: How will businesses cope with months of clatter and dust? Will the beautification bring new shoppers? And is the work needed at all?

Despite its central location, the traditional shopping area of Charles Street has its share of urban ills, including panhandlers and some empty storefronts. The pre-suburban days when wealthy Mount Vernon residents bought furs there are long gone.

But the area has its advantages, including fine dining, fancy shops and art galleries. And there are signs of optimism - a renovation of the McDowell Building in the 300 block, a new restaurant in the same block and more downtown residents.

But many storefronts remain empty, and recent departures and closings range from mainstays such as Nelson Coleman & Sons Ltd. jewelry to a relative newcomer, the Monument Cafe.

"In the long run, though, this is one of those things that is going to be very important for Charles Street in the whole renaissance and rebirth in vitality of the street," said Pam Wilson, executive director of the Maryland Federation of Art at 330 N. Charles St. Wilson is a co-chairwoman of the Historic Charles Street Association, a merchant group that supports the project.

Dengler, of the Downtown Partnership, said steps are being taken to limit disruption. Access to shops is being maintained, and demolition is being done at night. No one has gone out of business because of the work, he said.

Still, he understands the concerns. "I'm not going to say it's a cakewalk; it's major construction," Dengler conceded.

No need to tell that to shopkeepers between Lombard and Saratoga streets. That portion of the work - paid for by the city, property owners and Maryland Transit Administration - began more than nine months ago.

At Green Harbor Cafe in the 100 block, business is off 15 percent, said owner Andy Lee. "People tend to turn around, go somewhere else. It's been awhile - almost a year now. When it's finished it's going to look good, but it's taking too long."

At nearby Baltimore Gold & Silver Center, owner Paul Binder said hassles are inevitable with a project this size. Binder said he doesn't mean to whine, but he has had headaches: The basement flooded because of improper sealing by workers; his alarm company has billed him $140 for calls caused by the racket; and concrete dust coated his shop.

"It's just irksome," he said.

"I don't think brick sidewalks are the answer," he added with a wry smile.

A bigger concern for merchants, Binder said, is the lack of convenient parking. A recent study by a business group calls for a pair of new garages, but that construction is years away.

Meanwhile, the Charles Street roadway and sidewalk work is a reality that has drawn mixed reaction.

"It's going to be a sticky situation for customers and us," said Ayisha Bennett, who opened the Envi clothing boutique in the 300 block in May.

David Cangialosi, owner of David and Dad's Cafe at 334 N. Charles, said the inconvenience will be worth it. "I don't know anyone who isn't excited," he said. He is so bullish he is opening an Italian eatery, Cangialosi's, next door.

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