Downtown renewal easing to the north

`Upper west side' is mix of bleak and bright spots

January 19, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

At Baltimore and Eutaw streets, you will find a powerhouse redevelopment lineup led by the Hippodrome Theatre's $62 million revival and Bank of America's $80 million Centerpoint complex of shops and apartments.

Three blocks north on Saratoga Street, you've got Hany's Hardware, $6,000 and counting.

Elhamy Ibrahim, or "Hany" to friends, is opening the tiny hardware store at 212 W. Saratoga St. An effervescent Egyptian who insists on giving guests a seat and a cup of coffee, he sees the planned shop as his small contribution to jump-starting the once-thriving commercial strip.

"I want to bring people back to downtown," he said the other day, surrounded by three cats and a mutt named Max. So far, he has spent $6,000 to turn the ugly facade into a handsome peach-and-blue storefront.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions about development on Baltimore's west side incorrectly spelled the last name of Clifford Lull, president of the North Charles Street Design Organization.

Despite all the talk about "the west side," the core 20-block area is no monolith. More and more, there are two west sides downtown. In one, government and corporations are investing several hundred million dollars. In the other, farther north, change comes a storefront at a time, if at all.

Most major redevelopment is occurring south of Lexington Street. Signs of change are less evident on Ibrahim's 200 block of W. Saratoga.

Marketing executive Clifford Hull runs a firm on that block, and when he hears about the big projects to the south, he said, "I feel they're talking about another side of the world."

The division is partly by design. City economic development officials and some boosters say the renewal must be phased in. They say the benefits of new apartments, shops and the theater will ripple north in the form of new development. For now, they say, progress is occurring on a smaller scale.

In the heart of the northern reach - call it the upper west side - the 200 block of W. Saratoga St. offers a case study on what is happening, or not, away from the main action.

A recent visit revealed some surprises on the stretch of Saratoga between Park Avenue and Howard Street. You won't find the flowering west-side renaissance Mayor Martin O'Malley speaks of, but neither will you see a wasteland of boarded-up buildings. The reality is a mix of bleak and bright spots.

The bleak: a few empty storefronts; complaints about drug addicts and petty criminals; and a belief by some merchants that things won't get better, no matter how many people see Broadway shows at the Hippodrome.

The bright: active businesses at most addresses; prettied-up facades on some of the rowhouse buildings; an influx of entrepreneurial immigrants; and, soon, a little hardware store.

"This is a fascinating block," said Hull, president of North Charles Street Design Organization, which does marketing for colleges around the country.

The firm moved to the block in 1980, leaving Charles Street for a handsome Beaux-Arts firehouse built in 1904. By the time Hull moved in, the block was headed downhill, the result of a middle-class exodus to the suburbs dating to the 1960s.

Recruitment has been hurt by the area's sharp decline, said co-founder Bernice Thieblot, but crime and other problems have been rare. She and her husband raised their son in living space over the office, making for interesting days when his Gilman School chums visited.

This part of Saratoga, like much of the Howard Street corridor, relies on lower-income customers. The corridor was once the city's main retail area.

In 1950, you could buy shoes, furs, jewelry, radios and sporting goods in the 200 block. Services were as varied as embroidery and legal assistance.

Today, there are fewer stores to draw downtown workers or those walking to the light rail or buses. You can't buy shoes on the block, though you can get them fixed. Liquor is among the few goods available, day or night; services are dominated by hair salons.

Perhaps the most inspiring presence is the 52-year-old Ibrahim. Last week, he was laying tile for the hardware store. He does not expect to compete with Home Depot but thinks he can attract those who need, say, a new key. It's better than another hair-braiding outlet, he said.

"A few years ago, it was nail salons. It died. Now everybody's braiding hair. It's going to die. Hardware stores stay. It gives the neighborhood something," he said.

Ibrahim has leveraged his energy. He is on the board of the Market Center Merchants Association and has tapped a facade improvement program run by the Downtown Partnership.

The site of Hany's Hardware used to have a cage on the front. The bars are gone, and a new paint job has brightened the exterior. The facade program will pay $8,400 of the upgrade if Ibrahim spends the same. So far, he has put up $6,000, said the Downtown Partnership's Mike Evitts.

Around the corner on Park Avenue, Ibrahim plans to open a Middle Eastern grocery serving halal meat, the Muslim version of kosher. That facade has been fixed up.

"I don't want it to be looking like it's an abandoned neighborhood," said Ibrahim, one of the few residents in the 200 block of W. Saratoga.

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