Phantom menace

September 18, 2004

WHEN THE PRODUCERS of The Phantom of the Opera announced last month that the popular musical would close its Baltimore run two weeks early, a chill ran through downtown's west-side redevelopment campaign.

Was the Hippodrome Theatre foundering? Had ticket sales tanked? Had the proverbial chandelier crashed on Baltimore's newest stage?

The answer was no. Apparently, the touring company just needed a vacation. After Phantom closes tomorrow, some big shows, including Thoroughly Modern Millie and The King & I, are waiting in the wings.

But the fact that a fairly routine decision by one touring company could so easily set nerves on edge is instructive. West-side redevelopment remains a fragile thing. The opening of the Hippodrome last February was a triumph of hope over reason. Until that day, it was difficult to imagine a world-class theater ever emerging from the decaying west side. Seven months later, relatively little has changed. And that's exactly the problem. The Hippodrome is the rose amid thorns -- and no one's been pruning.

How bad is it? On one side, a liquor store's thick-paned walk-up window sells pints of fortified wine until midnight. Across the street, trash collects around a vacant building. Even the most hopeful sign -- construction of $94 million Centerpoint, the ambitious block-spanning mix of rental apartments and retail -- is perhaps a year away from presenting an attractive (and occupied) view to Eutaw Street.

Here it is September, the start of a new theater season, and an unintended message is being sent each night to the Hippodrome's patrons: No urgency here. Over the past five years, a lot has changed on the west side. There are upscale apartments, offices, new businesses. But in the vicinity of the Hippodrome, the centerpiece of redevelopment, time is standing still.

Officials at the Baltimore Development Corp. say changes are coming. But these are the very people who helped set the snail-like pace. Surely the most egregious example is the Abell Building, the vacant hulk at West Baltimore and Eutaw streets. The building is so run down that trees grow out its rotting top floors. The owner has promised an $8.5 million refurbishment. He wants to turn it into 40 apartments, but he's been so slow that the City Council agreed last spring to let BDC acquire it.

Now BDC once again believes in the owner's promises. They expect construction to start before year's end. If the Abell Building were the only problem on the block, such delays would be more easily forgiven. But eyesores abound: The 400 block of West Baltimore is slated to become a mix of office space and stores. Nor has much happened to the "super block," the parcel bounded by Fayette, Liberty, Howard and Clay streets. The BDC unveiled four proposals for it in March; they're still being studied. Just north of the Hippodrome, the Drovers and Mechanics National Bank building and the Palmer House restaurant look good by comparison -- they're just empty and boarded up. No plans yet for either, by the way.

BDC officials say these things take time. They expect a lot of construction to be under way by next spring. But such assurances sound awfully familiar. Meanwhile, the Hippodrome will attract huge crowds -- 2,000 people at a time -- and they'll likely make far less optimistic assessments.

Now is the time for a little impatience, that kind of swift kick applied to the posterior that was the specialty of a former mayor with a "do it now" philosophy. The west side's renaissance is far from done -- and could easily be undone if the pace of progress doesn't quicken.

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