Optimism the rule for new west side

Future: On the day marked by reopening of the Hippodrome Theatre, people talk of a once-vital downtown hub `coming back.'

February 11, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Just hours before the Hippodrome Theatre's opening gala yesterday, Howard Street jeweler Alvin Levi's upbeat mood matched the springlike break in the weather.

"Most people don't get it," Levi said of the Hippodrome, just a block from his store. "They view it as art and entertainment and don't realize that it's the rebirth of a community."

Hope sprang eternal yesterday in Baltimore's erstwhile retail hub, where hit theater productions once created long ticket lines and four big department stores - all now a distant memory - catered to a bewildering variety of shopping needs.

Willie Hall, 90, was in a particularly prophetic mood.

"It's coming back," he said of the area. "It will be a while, but it's coming back. I'll be gone, though."

Hall, dapper in a blue suit, was washing store windows on Howard Street, just as he has been doing for the past 51 years.

As he worked on the glass, he saw the reflection of Centerpoint, an apartment-retail complex under construction in a square block that overlooks the redone $62 million Hippodrome on Eutaw Street.

Starting next month, the $85 million Centerpoint will begin pre-leasing units for occupancy in June. Projected monthly rents range from $850 to $2,000.

"This is better than a big bang," said Ronald Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc. "This is a constellation system forming here."

He was referring to $900 million worth of construction under way or about to start in a decayed area around the Hippodrome, between the central business district and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Kreitner listed several highlights as additional proof of the area's turnaround after decades of decline including: two additional apartment complexes, the planned renovation of the Abell Building for apartments and Market Center-West, a new 221-unit residential tower; a parking garage to built on the site of the Greyhound bus terminal on Fayette Street; and a new residential tower for University of Maryland students at Fayette and Greene streets.

The city is also seeking redevelopment proposals - due at the end of the month - for a so-called "super block," bounded by Park Avenue, Howard, Fayette and Lexington streets.

Previous revitalization projects include the Atrium, a conversion of the old Hecht flagship department store at Howard and Lexington streets into apartments; the renovation of the former Stewart's building into offices; and a face lift for Lexington Market.

Despite continuing and future changes in the west side, Paula Lazo did not seem impressed as she waited for the light rail yesterday.

"This area has gone down, there are lots of drugs," she said, shaking her head.

The Puerto Rico native, who moved to Baltimore 30 years ago, recalled going to the Hippodrome when it was a movie theater. But she said she didn't think much of its reopening if the neighborhood continued to be a refuge for street people.

"I'll believe it has changed, when I start seeing classy people," she said.

Levi, the jeweler, said it will be important to curb panhandling and other undesirable behavior because a key goal is to link the Hippodrome area to Charles Center and the Inner Harbor. Police already maintain a large substation in the basement of the old Hecht building.

"In my lifetime, in two, three years, it's going to be a brand-new Baltimore," said Levi, whose family's jewelry store has been a Howard Street fixture since 1945. "This is not based on articles of faith but on brick and mortar."

Lou Boulmetis, 51, also seemed optimistic. Because his business, Hippodrome Hatters, is the only Hippodrome listing in the telephone book, he has been getting lots of inquiries about tickets in recent days.

When his grandfather opened the hat store in 1930, it was across from the vaudeville house.

"He opened early and stayed late to accommodate the actors," Boulmetis said of his grandfather. "He knew Johnny Weissmuller and Clark Gable."

Neither Boulmetis nor Levi was present at last night's gala opening. They said they could not afford the tickets, which started at $250.

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