The half-century-old Cross Street Market building will get a face-lift that vendors hope will draw new customers without alienating its longtime fans.

Neighborhood standby to change with the times

July 12, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

Cross Street Market in Federal Hill is undergoing a $1.3 million face-lift over the next two months, temporarily shutting down a popular seafood bar as part of the first major renovation since the structure was built more than 50 years ago.

In an effort to better mesh with other revitalization projects in the South Baltimore neighborhood, the market's entrances - now marked by a retro-style multicolored cupola - will feature a new brick facade with a sign illuminated by gooseneck light fixtures, while the inside will get improved lighting and a new ceramic tile floor.

The Light Street entrance is closed; it will reopen when construction begins on the entrance on the opposite side on Charles Street.

Tommy Chagouris, owner of Nick's Inner Harbour Seafood, said it is time to upgrade the market, which has sold baked goods, seafood, meats, produce and flowers in various locations throughout South Baltimore since the 1840s. He acknowledges that his regular customers might not be initially pleased because they relish the market's atmosphere, which offers a step back in time.

But while neighborhood development over the past few years has brought in more tourists and residents, it has also ushered in more upscale bars, restaurants and supermarkets that have taken away some of Cross Street's customers.

"If you spent an afternoon here hanging out and talking to people, everybody would say the same thing - leave it alone. Don't do anything. This is the way we like it," Chagouris said. "I walk a very fine line with the regular customers. But the market needs it. My business needs it."

Almost three years ago, Whole Foods Market, an upscale grocery store open seven days a week, opened less than two miles away at Inner Harbor East and began to siphon away business. Last January, Cross Street vendors started shutting down at 6 p.m., one hour earlier, a move rejected by the organization that oversees the city's public markets.

The market is now dotted with empty stalls, which officials hope can be home to new businesses. By retaining its array of vendors and products, the market is banking that regulars will keep coming while the new look will bring new customers.

"We'll sweat it out, just like anything else," said Steve Bongiovani, an owner of Bongiovani & Sons, which has sold produce at the market for over 40 years. "Anything they do for us is a plus."

The upgrades may mean sacrificing some of the market's character. Besides the wet concrete floors and narrow aisles reminiscent of the days when people relied on public markets for groceries, the colorful cupolas are the image perhaps most associated with the market.

"It may be something customers were accustomed to seeing, but the new image as a more modern and contemporary building is going to be much more advantageous," said Casper Genco, executive director of Baltimore City Public Markets, which is paying for the renovations.

The market will remain open, though Nick's, the largest spot in the market, will close for two months to get its $600,000 worth of upgrades. Along with a more industrial appearance, the bar, a popular happy-hour destination for young professionals, will add more seating and a deck area, and shift around the sushi, steam bar and grill areas.

"It's time to make some progress. ... I want [the regulars] to say, `Wow, this place is really nice,'" said Chagouris. "My place is OK, but I think it needs work."

Some customers strolling through the market yesterday said changes in appearance will be welcomed as long as the atmosphere remains the same.

"It's all that personal attention," said Tom Cripps, a retired teacher, as he checked out fresh fish on ice. "This is a real neighborhood place, a real market, not a tourist market."

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