Big plans for Broadway

Duo envisions redevelopment of Fells Point street

July 30, 2006|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

A brick. That's how Dave Holmes sees the northern half of the Broadway Market - a blocky dead weight dragging the rest of the street down.

"It just sits there," he says. "It doesn't contribute anything."

But Holmes and another young local developer, Dan Winner, have big plans to change that - and the rest of the 600 block of South Broadway, a down-on-its-luck leg of Fells Point's formerly prosperous commercial strip.

With $40 million of restoration and new construction, the two want to bring shopping back to the block, as well as offices, parking and living space.

"We want to turn back time a bit and give a sense of what this block used to be," Holmes says, as Winner adds: "Fells Point really has potential. It could be something so much more than what it is."

However, while many in the community relish the thought of pushing the vibrancy of Broadway's tourist-friendly waterfront end further north, some worry that this project would overwhelm Fells Point's historic scale and introduce national chains to the proudly independent neighborhood.

"There's rumors of corporate businesses coming," says Ida Pogue, who owns 9th Life on the 600 block, which she describes as "kind of empty." "There goes the character of what Fells Point was all about."

More than a year ago, Holmes and Winner impulsively tossed aside a plan to renovate just three properties on the block between Aliceanna and Fleet streets, figuring they better just go ahead and do the whole thing.

"Success is kind of dependent on the whole block succeeding," Winner says.

With large swaths of properties now theirs, the two want to combine many of the small store spaces lining Broadway to make room for bigger retailers on the ground floor and offices above.

Fells Point, they say, is oversaturated with tiny mom-and-pop shops, and they would like to make room for bigger local stores like Thames Street's Su Casa as well as national retailers.

Their intent is to preserve and restore as much of the historic architecture as possible, they say.

Behind the commercial space on both sides of the street, the two want to build parking garages topped with apartments or condos. That new construction would require demolishing a number of structures.

The centerpiece, they say, will be a restored Broadway Market north building - with the historic second story built back on - and they want a "signature" retailer replacing the traditional food vendors inside. They believe that would set the tone for a more bustling, modern block.

"To not go to this extent is only robbing this block of its chance to succeed," Holmes says.

Otis Rolley III, Baltimore's planning director, says it's too early to give his blessing to the project, but "from what I've seen this far, I'm excited."

Though the concept sounds intriguing, Rolley cautioned that the logistics are far from worked out. For instance, it's unclear whether preservation laws would allow the developers to demolish properties.

And community leaders seem ready to put up a fight about the size of the project's tallest building - which could rise nine to 11 stories.

"We have to put a little more meat on the bones here," Rolley says.

Another obstacle for Winner and Holmes could be getting control of the city-owned Broadway Market. The historic brick structure, which dates to 1864, falls under the purview of the city's Public Markets Corp., a nonprofit organization established to run Baltimore's traditional markets, which include Cross Street Market and Lexington Market.

The developers hope the city will consider anything from giving them a long-term lease on the building to putting it up for sale to renovating it themselves.

Without redevelopment of the market, they say, they have no interest in pursuing the rest of the project.

"We don't want to start work on the rest of our properties until we know something is in the works and is going to happen here - it's too risky," Winner says.

Casper J. Genco Jr., executive director of the market corporation, who says the Broadway Market is "very marginally profitable," is interested in negotiating with Holmes and Winner.

"There seems to be no question that there needs to be some money spent to update the facility, and this seems to be one opportunity to do that," he says.

When Holmes and Winner presented the plan to the Fells Point Task Force this week, it got mixed reviews.

Criticism, as expected, seemed to center on the height.

"It just powers over that edge of Fells Point," task force member Kay Hogan said. "It's just out of place, out of scope and way out of scale."

But Jeremy Fennema, president Fells Point Development Corp. and a member of the task force, said that Broadway desperately needs this project.

He says the 600 block as it stands, "really acts as sort of an arterial plaque on the business district," killing any chance that tourists who flock to the Thames Street waterfront will move north up Broadway.

"They get up to Aliceanna St., they stop, they see that block and they turn around," Fennema says. "It's basically like a big stop sign that says, `Go back.'"

City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Fells Point, likes the project but calls the one building's height "a significant problem." He's also concerned about sapping the neighborhood's local flavor with national chain stores.

"Every time you bring in one of these places you make the community a little less unique," Kraft says. "The last thing you want to do to Fells Point is to make it look like Gettysburg, with one Kentucky Fried Chicken after a Wendy's after a Holiday Inn. We don't want that."

However, Kraft thinks Fells Point residents would enjoy a more upscale national retailer, something like a Restoration Hardware.

Winner and Holmes say one thing is clear: Something has to be done to fix the block.

"Fells Point's not a museum," Winner says. "Sometimes change is good."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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