One Baltimore block brought back from the brink

City Diary

October 29, 2003|By Alan Shecter

AFTER 25 years, a risky strategy for the 1700 block of N. Charles St. - immediately north of Penn Station and largely owned by my family - is succeeding.

The issue in the 1970s was whether this block could be oriented southward toward the University of Baltimore, the Lyric Opera House and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Otherwise, our properties would drift in the seedy tides that had overtaken the area immediately to our north. Vulnerable and without a plan, the 1700 block could have gone either way.

The strategy was to reject a prospective nightclub that offered high rent for our vacant Famous Ballroom, but which looked as if it could cause trouble.

FOR THE RECORD - Due to an editing error, yesterday's City Diary referred to Pat Moran as Mr. Moran. Pat Moran is a woman. The Sun regrets the error.

The risky part was to open an "art house" cinema in the adjoining, also vacant Charles Theatre. The Lyric was drawing large audiences only three blocks to the south. I wondered if quality foreign and art films could draw customers to the Charles.

Sadly, no Baltimore movie operator would gamble on the Charles and its uninviting neighborhood. But Washington exhibitor David Levy signed on and made the Charles work, hiring the colorful Pat Moran as his manager. Mr. Levy brought outstanding foreign and alternative films to Baltimore. Very low rent was an incentive, and Mr. Moran ran it well. People came - lots of them.

When Mr. Levy tired of the commute and Mr. Moran went on to casting fame, the Charles closed again. A new tenant team, led by builder Buzz Cusack, soon reopened it, again showing art films. And again, people came.

Single-screen theaters, however, had begun closing throughout the country; labor-efficient multiscreen cinemas were hot. The Charles was again threatened.

Forgoing market rent, I agreed to a conversion of the vacant Famous Ballroom into four additional screens with stadium seating. I also forfeited forever 12,000 feet of space that could be leased, razing the huge ballroom floor to create the needed ceiling height below. The Baltimore Development Corp., the A. S. Abell Foundation and the Maryland Department of Economic Development rendered important support. Mr. Cusack proved masterful in design and operation of the $2 million expansion.

At the same time, Vincent Lancisi had opened Everyman Theatre for live performances in our adjacent building. He had no capital, but a prestigious board backed his brilliant vision - high-quality drama at "everyman" ticket prices. His rent barely covered our property taxes, insurance and roof repairs.

Why accept puny rents? Because immediate cash return does not address long-term priorities. To create a future for that worrisome block, we needed activity to beat back the blight.

It now appears that we've helped create an arts and entertainment district. Mayor Martin O'Malley has so designated our neighborhood, making it eligible for tax and loan incentives to lure additional development.

Northward, the area still suffers - a controversial nightclub, a closed bank, other vacancies and issues. Southward, the once-celebrated Chesapeake Restaurant, still a potential profit fountain, remains neglected and dark.

Once worried and unsure about this block of Baltimore's longest, most special street, I've become an optimist - a major metamorphosis for a neurotic real estate investor. Here's why:

MICA recently crossed Amtrak's barrier rails (a gigantic psychological leap, really), purchasing a massive eight-story building close by on North Avenue at Maryland Avenue. Its hundreds of artists and instructors are our new neighbors.

Everyman Theatre is extending its lease, even offering a little more rent. Upstairs from the Everyman, 10,000 feet of space is being designed for still another cultural occupancy. Abutting Everyman, a crepes and ice cream bistro will open shortly.

In May, the prominent Urban Land Institute (ULI), an educational and research organization concerned with the "highest and best uses" of urban properties, deemed our neighborhood ideal for replicating the ambiance and charm of the artsy Torpedo Factory area in Arlington, Va. ULI calls us "Station North." I love it.

Imagine a midtown bustling with bistros, bookstores and boutiques, with antique shops, art galleries and artists' ateliers. Already here are the Schuler School of Fine Arts and American Dime and Baltimore Streetcar museums. ULI claims we can have more like this.

I envision a raised platform above Amtrak's rails from St. Paul Street to Maryland Avenue, supporting "air rights" development of apartments, offices, a hotel and shops above the tracks at Penn Station, all linking the Charles and Everyman to the University of Baltimore and the Lyric. (Goodbye, ugly railroad track barrier.)

I've started wearing a "Believe" button.

Today's writer

Alan Shecter is a commercial property owner in midtown Baltimore who says he's obsessed with North Charles Street.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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