$53 million perking up Charles St.

Treasure: Charles Street may have been neglected for a few years, but things have been improving there recently.

November 25, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

From a face-lift for the signature office tower at One Charles Center to new restaurants and art galleries, private businesses have invested more than $50 million along Charles Street downtown during the past two years, according to a nonprofit group that's working to rekindle the retail corridor's grand past.

The $53.5 million spent along Charles, between Pratt Street and North Avenue, ranges from multimillion-dollar projects to upgrades and renovations by existing small businesses, according to a survey by the Charles Street Development Corp. Twenty-one new businesses have opened since 2002, said the group charged with spearheading the area's revitalization.

"Clearly, we're extremely excited that investment on Charles Street is picking up," said Rebecca Gagalis, the group's executive director. "It seems consistent up and down the corridor. We want Charles Street to be as downtown once was - a destination for retail, entertainment, shopping, dining and also a great place to live."

Gagalis said the survey was the first in a series it planned to conduct to track progress and help target planning and marketing efforts.

"We want to make sure that we keep aware of the pulse of the area," she said.

The investments include a $21 million upgrade to One Charles Center, the landmark 22-story office tower designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; $7 million in renovations to Charles Plaza, an apartment tower with ground-level shops; and $10 million of alterations to the former Masonic Headquarters, now called the Tremont Grand, which is being converted to a conference center and shops and is to be connected to the Tremont Suites Hotel.

Other new and existing businesses, ranging from restaurants to apparel retailers to art galleries, have spent a total of $15.5 million for structural upgrades, new dM-icor, equipment, lighting and various other renovations, according to the survey. Overall 600 jobs have been created since 2000, and vacancies, a persistent problem, have dipped below 20 percent, Gagalis said.

To reach its full potential, the area still needs improved transit service with remote parking, Gagalis said.

The recent investments are a fraction of what has been spent in the past five to seven years, according to Kemp Byrnes, president of Byrnes & Associates Inc., a real estate brokerage firm, and board member of the Historic Charles Street Association.

He estimates that investment commitments during the past five to seven years tally more than $1 billion - including acquisitions, new development, redevelopment and government improvements.

"It's one of the best kept secrets in the state of Maryland right now," he said. "Charles Street has always been the main street in Baltimore, the main street of the whole metropolitan area. It's a gold mine that, quite frankly, the whole city didn't do anything for, for 10 years."

But that is changing. By year end or soon thereafter, the city is expected to wrap up a street improvement project that stretches from the convention center to the Washington Monument, he said.

"We've been asking the city to do this for five years," he said. "When the city starts making the commitment to be a partner in redevelopment, then the private sector will jump in with mega-dollars."

Byrnes said that any attention to progress on Charles Street is a good thing, and he supports the development group's survey.

Jimmy Rouse, vice chairman of the Charles Street Development Corp. and a member of the executive board of the Historic Charles Street Association, said he thinks that the extent of redevelopment will surprise people who haven't followed it closely.

"What we're really trying to create on Charles Street is what it was - a unique shopping and cultural experience - before the focus of suburbanization in the '50s caused that to deteriorate," Rouse said. "Now is the time to bring that back. Really, for the first time in 50 years, that opportunity exists."

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