Lights out for Howard Street arches

Illumination: Bulb-laden structures will be coming down after 20 years, and few will miss them.

September 02, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

Decorative arches with lights, installed over Howard Street in the 1980s to restore long-lost twinkle, instead became a 20-year-running light bulb joke.

Cut the laugh track - the city's taking them down.

"They won't be missed!" Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie cheerfully wrote in an e-mail yesterday.

His exclamation point punctuates the joy he and other downtown boosters feel to see the arches go.

The bulb-dotted arches that span the street, looking, especially at night, not unlike a carnival ride, were part of a multimillion-dollar attempt by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to rejuvenate the Howard Street retail district. Designers intended the arches to mimic the arched windows in some of downtown's historic buildings.

That renewal effort lost steam, as did a push years later to turn Howard Street into the "Avenue of the Arts."

And now, with the city hoping once again that the latest revitalization program, the west-side redevelopment effort, will do the trick, some say the arches are just a deflating reminder of earlier failures.

"They symbolize the optimism of previous efforts to make that a better area," said Mike Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership. "Whatever vibrant quality they had has long since faded from glory."

Dismantling the structures is easier said then done, however.

Because power lines for the light rail are built into the arches, the job is quite complicated, said Bob Powers, chief of the city Department of Transportation's division of engineering and construction.

The arches are so intertwined with light rail wires that changing light bulbs on them meant shutting off power to the light rail so that workers wouldn't be electrocuted. And, Powers said, those light bulb changes were happening regularly.

"We could say it was a maintenance problem, but let's just say it was a challenge," Powers said.

Hiring an engineer

This week, the Board of Estimates approved spending $102,000 to hire an engineer to study how to get them down, and where to put the light rail wires instead.

By next year, Powers hopes the "eyesores" and their pesky bulbs will be Howard Street history. Because if the upkeep wasn't bad enough, there were the complaining calls from merchants and transit officials.

"They aren't the most attractive thing in the world," said Michael Mehring, who works at Antique Row Stalls on Howard Street. "But it would be one thing if they could get all of the bulbs working at the same time."

Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance, the organization coordinating revitalization efforts in the area, said in the beginning, the arches had a "whimsical" quality.

From whimsy to burden

But whimsy turned burdensome. Now, Kreitner said, their bulk blocks the beauty of buildings he's trying to populate.

"They've certainly made it more difficult to showcase the historic architecture," he said. "They're pretty massive in scale."

Schaefer, now state comptroller, said he built the arches hoping they would brighten things up and bring people who had fled the city for suburbia back downtown.

"Howard Street had deteriorated to the point that nobody walked on it at all," he said. "[The arches] worked for a while."

While he acknowledged they may have "outlived their usefulness," he said that's not why the city is removing them - it's because Mayor Martin O'Malley wants his mark on the city, not a former mayor's.

`They're not his'

"If O'Malley thought they were bad, that would be one thing," Schaefer said. "He's taking them down because they're not his, and that's the only reason. He tore down Memorial Stadium for no reason, a terrible mistake, like tearing down the Colosseum in Rome. ... I'm surprised he left the light bulb arches up as long as he did."

O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said there have been intense efforts to preserve and restore historic buildings on the west side, including the Hippodrome Theatre. But the arches, she said, simply weren't effective.

"Change is sometimes good," she said. "We're happy to see them come down."

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