West-side renewal doomed to failure

December 28, 2004|By Charles Belfoure

CITY OFFICIALS always seem to develop a severe case of amnesia when it comes to urban redevelopment.

There were scores of articles in The Sun 40 years ago about the promise of Charles Center, the city's first attempt at urban renewal. It was to be the springboard for a better Baltimore, an opening for the rejuvenation of the rest of downtown.

The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre was a cornerstone of the plan, a venue where hundreds of patrons would enjoy a show, shop and go to lunch or dinner, invigorating Charles Center with a dynamic energy. Office workers were expected to stay after work and add a dose of energy to the area.

It didn't turn out that way.

Today, office workers clear out a minute after 5 p.m., leaving Charles Center a desert island of barren plazas and bleak office towers. The Mechanic didn't become a catalyst for a vibrant entertainment district. No one from the suburbs goes to Charles Center on weekends.

There were such high hopes in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the same kind of hopes everyone is pinning on the current west-side renewal which in another 40 years will probably also seem very forlorn. There's nothing sadder than a failed urban renewal project - not because of the tens of millions of dollars spent, but because of the dashed hopes.

The west-side plan has a decidedly different approach from Charles Center. Instead of knocking down dozens of great historic buildings, it incorporates as many as it can in its renewal, beginning with the recently restored Hippodrome Theatre as its centerpiece. That's an admirable plan, but still one that faces some insurmountable problems.

There's no critical mass to the project; it's being carried out in too piecemeal a fashion, even though apartment buildings are going up. The recently proposed superblock renewal could be a step in the right direction, despite its disregard for historic architecture and its condemnation issues. That plan calls for the redevelopment of 3.6 acres between Howard and Liberty streets that would contain new apartments and retail linking the moribund Charles Center to the west side.

The city and the state don't have the will or the resources to do the renewal on the huge scale that's necessary to make it succeed. The west-side plan also ties its success to the adjacent University of Maryland campus, a weak link given that the students are transients.

Even though the west-side plan has a residential component, so did Charles Center. And the city's successful downtown apartments converted from old office buildings, such as the Standard and Munsey buildings, seem too far away to help.

But in the end - and no one wants to speak about it - race plays the real factor in the city's redevelopment. Research shows that the city's few successes such as Canton, Federal Hill, Fells Point, Brewers Hill, Locust Point, Hampden and Bolton Hill all retained majority white populations in their census tracts despite the white flight that began in the 1960s.

The west side is perceived as black and dangerous, especially Lexington Market. The Hippodrome is sold out because it's a novelty, for the same reason the Mechanic, which is now for sale, was sold out in the early 1960s. White suburbanites won't linger after a show to shop or dine. They'll get back into their cars, which are parked in a garage attached to the theater. You're fighting decades of a perception that historic or new buildings can't overcome.

It doesn't matter, though. The city fools itself by believing the key to the city's turnaround is in downtown. The downtown should be left as is for now, a mixture of businesses catering to low-income people and vacant buildings. But building-by-building development may still take place there over time.

The real hope lies in the city's neighborhoods, where people amazingly still do have hope and much loyalty to their little universes. Residents are amazed and also bitter about the amount of both private and public money that goes into downtown development, especially for hotels that cater to the convention crowds and tourists. Merely a fraction of that money could boost a neighborhood. They know the city's neighborhood programs get nothing compared to downtown, where few people actually live.

Charles Belfoure, an architect and writer, is co-author of The Baltimore Rowhouse

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