Theater takes spotlight in west-side revival

October 31, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

STANDING BEFORE an enormous stage in the dank wreckage of the old Hippodrome Theater, Mark Sissman raises his arms as though signaling some ghostly orchestra that it's time to strike up the music again. It's been a long, long time between gigs. But Sissman, wearing a construction worker's hat and a look of Tchaikovskian confidence, is conducting something bigger than a symphonic overture.

In the dusty chill of this old Eutaw Street movie house, the city of Baltimore attempts to reinvigorate the west side of its downtown. The Hippodrome is at the dramatic heart of it. The Producers is on the way, and Hairspray, too. They signal music - and municipal rebirth.

When all is completed - not only restoring the theater, but converting nearby abandoned department stores into handsome apartments and condos, offices and shops, adding immense new space to the University of Maryland complex a block away, and refurbishing bustling Lexington Market - about $750 million will have been spent.

And an area once the cultural and business heart of Baltimore, but for the past several decades decaying and sometimes dangerous, might be transformed.

Sissman heads the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center. Standing near him on this raw afternoon inside the Hippodrome are Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of Westside Renaissance Inc., and Mark L. Wasserman, senior vice president, external affairs, for the University of Maryland Medical System.

To say they are the chief conductors of this west-side project is to minimize their work. At stake is downtown's future - and a metropolitan area's perception that it's safe to go back here for business, for pleasure, or to settle in.

"The sense of momentum is strong," Kreitner says. "Look around. The area is already being transformed."

"It's a march of a thousand steps," says Wasserman. "But we're well on the way now. It's a question of letting people know it's happening."

"Three months ago," says Sissman, "theater subscribers didn't believe it. Now, I'm getting invited to speak to groups every month. There's a buzz. People want to be first in line to see The Producers. This is going to be a phenomenal, world-class place."

The three men are making a case for development - and for a state of mind, as well.

All around is evidence of remarkable physical transformation. Inside the Hippodrome, construction workers are installing electrical wiring, hauling heavy metal, laying foundations. In nearby buildings once home to department stores, several hundred apartments that rent for up to $2,200 a month have been filled by students and young professionals. And construction at University of Maryland Medical Center and the nearby professional schools includes new emergency rooms, operating suites, classrooms, lecture halls. It's enormously impressive.

"Whoever thought you'd have people spending this kind of money to live in downtown Baltimore in old buildings?" Sissman says with a laugh. "But, unit by unit, sometimes family by family, a whole new part of the city is developing that's just beginning to be recognized."

There are anxieties that come with such an effort. In a tight economy, will the next governor understand how much is at stake here? Will people across the metro area, who visit the nearby ballparks and Harborplace, trek a few blocks out of their way to see the changes already made?

And, most profoundly, can they put aside their old fears - that dangers are lurking - and perceive that a new era has arrived?

Everybody understands: Those fears are as important as all the construction, and all the money, being poured into the area. Already, though, there's a police substation here, with 50 officers working out of clean new quarters in the old Hecht Co. basement.

"They're enforcing stuff," says Kreitner, "that didn't used to be enforced. Quality-of-life stuff. And changes at the [Lexington] Market. For example, they've moved the bus stop so crowds don't collect in front of the doors. We can't have the perception that it's not safe down here. Otherwise, you build buildings that nobody wants to get near."

"It's not that we're trying to flush people out," says Wasserman.

It's an interesting choice of verbs. In the rush to remove drug traffickers and other undesirables, some small-business people were moved around. Poor and working-class people still wonder if there's a place for them on the new west side.

Everybody agrees: The desire is to make all classes comfortable - so that the charms of the 220-year-old Lexington Market can blend with a brand-new Hippodrome. And a city can conduct business (and music) to lure a new generation here.

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