Downtown living

November 17, 2005

The downtown of the 21st century distinguishes itself by its in-town residents - by the very fact that they exist. Unlike 50 years ago, when people mainly worked and shopped downtown, today's city centers are becoming the place to live, and by that measure, Baltimore rates.

It's happening here and elsewhere to such an extent that a recent Brookings Institution study cites the increase in downtown residents as a hallmark of downtown America's evolution. And Baltimore is on the right track.

Look around; seeing is believing. Old warehouses, former towers of commerce and defunct department stores now are home to renters, loft dwellers and condominium owners. New complexes on the west and east sides of downtown attest to its resurgence and expansion beyond the old central business district. But downtown shouldn't be the preserve of the well-to-do and their waterside townhomes with million-dollar views. Baltimore has managed - though it could do more - to build affordable housing within a 15-minute walk of the Inner Harbor. In a recent survey of "best practices" for affordable homeownership, the Washington-based Homeownership Alliance cited Baltimore and singled out its Live Near Your Work program for helping first-time homeowners, including some in downtown neighborhoods, to buy near their workplaces.

Eugenie L. Birch, the Brookings study's author, contends that a mixed-use development is the appropriate analogy for today's successful downtown: an amalgam of hospitals and universities, job centers and entertainment venues, architectural interests and cultural institutions, public transportation and services for in-town living. Downtown has to be safe and accessible.

Baltimore's bona fides fit a lot of that bill, but it's still a work in progress. The city's effort to retain jobs downtown is a critical component of its well-being and growth. Its commercial venues have to be accessible and offer more amenities - food markets, dry cleaners, drug stores and the like - that make living downtown easy and enjoyable.

Baltimore is smaller than it was 50 years ago. But it's reinventing itself in ways that have made people take notice. Live Baltimore isn't just a bumper sticker slogan; it's a mantra for the city's renewal.

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