Here and elsewhere, downtown becoming a great destination

August 12, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

I once thought I had to leave town to take a vacation day trip, but no longer. Now I can board a transit bus at my front door and, 15 minutes later, be in a thriving tourist destination: the Inner Harbor.

Most Baltimoreans will refuse, flat out, to pay a downtown weekend parking fee of $10 to $20 to see what I mean.

Others, if they had a free parking spot, would decline the chance and wait for their cousins from Cleveland to arrive before they'd show off the town and tackle the local tourist circuit. (The $8 all-day water taxi pass is a real value.)

I can't say that I've lined up too see the additions at the National Aquarium or arrived in a charter bus from New Jersey recently. But here are a few of my observations: On a recent weekend, the crowds at Pratt and Light streets resembled the passing parades of humanity I recalled in my youth along the Atlantic City boardwalk.

And on several other jaunts on and off Pratt Street this summer, I've noted how attractive summertime Baltimore has become. The Power Plant area meshes well with the Pier Five hotel and its lush gardens. Linking to it is the fast-building Inner Harbor East, where, if you blink an eye, something new is added to the mix.

Then there was the recent Otakon convention. It drew so many young aficionados of Japanese animation that early Saturday afternoon downtown traffic actually got temporarily sluggish. I always thought that Baltimore was a town that rolled up the sidewalks not long after sunset. Not so. There were many Otakoners out at 11 p.m.

The downtown restaurateurs must be delighted that the Orioles now play some home games in the 4 o'clock slot. As a friend of mine described the presence of Orioles downtown: They are the swizzle stick that stirs the Inner Harbor cocktail. I guess that some fans make a day of it - lunch first, then the game, and maybe dinner too, or a snack and a drink somewhere.

On recent trips to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, I witnessed similar crowd scenes. Whatever Manhattan has done to bring people back to Times Square is more than working. On a July Saturday, it was almost too crowded. It looked like pictures of New York during World War II.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see how old downtown Washington has made a strong comeback. The area I'm thinking about, around the old Hecht Co. building near the National Portrait Gallery, used to be empty on a Sunday afternoon. After years of rebuilding and the addition of new apartment houses, the place looks better than anything I can remember in the past 40 years.

Philadelphia has a pretty spectacular convention center, which brings up the subject of what is now under construction at Eutaw and Camden streets: Baltimore's Convention Center Hotel.

There was controversy about its financing, but it is now rapidly rising and it's time to start thinking about what it can do for the city.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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