Nearly 18 years after Baltimore bid farewell to its last department store, downtown is welcoming back large-scale retail - a Filene's Basement.
Though the bargain-lover's outlet isn't the traditional type of department store lodged in the memories of many Baltimoreans, development officials say its arrival heralds a shopping renaissance for the city and the cementing of what's becoming a nascent Baltimore shopping district.
"Without a doubt it's the sign of a comeback," said Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler. "It's all coming together."
Filene's Basement officials signed a lease yesterday to move into Lockwood Place, a new and glassy shopping center on Pratt Street that's already home to Best Buy.
Next spring, Filene's Basement, with its aisles of discounted men's, women's and children's clothing as well as housewares, is scheduled to move into 30,000 square feet there - occupying the entire second floor of the building developed by David S. Brown and A & R Development.
Long amenable to urban locations, Filene's Basement has been successful with center-city stores in Washington, Chicago, New York City and Boston, where the company is based.
Filene's officials think the Baltimore site, across from the bustling Inner Harbor and within walking distance of most downtown offices, will attract office workers on lunch break, tourists and downtown-area residents, said Patricia Boudrot, the store's spokeswoman.
"We think that area has a lot of potential and we wanted to get in now," she said.
Baltimore development officials are thrilled that national-name retailers finally want to get back into a downtown that not all that long ago, they couldn't get out of fast enough.
Urban Outfitters, another larger-sized store known for trendy fashions, is set to open later this year at Harborplace.
"Four years ago in the heart of downtown there was no Office Depot, no 7-Eleven, no Best Buy," said Fowler. "We've come a long way."
But it wasn't always such a struggle.
The intersection of Howard and Lexington streets was a once a shopping mecca with iconic department stores like Hochschild-Kohn, Stewart & Co., Hutzler's and Hecht's, where families came to buy everything from socks to stoves.
In January 1989, when Hecht's rung up its last sweater, downtown's shopping era seemed to have ended. By then it had already been slipping away for years.
But with downtown living in vogue again and monied baby boomers and young professionals moving back, Baltimore's shopping climate has begun to prosper anew.
A study released last year by the Downtown Partnership predicted the center city was ripe for retail - more so than anyone thought.
The group found that Baltimore ranked eighth among major U.S. cities for population density within a mile of downtown's core. That area also ranked 14th for median household income.
"I think we're starting to see the fruits of the demographics," said Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie.
"Bit by bit, in the Baltimore mode - not like a tidal wave - we're seeing national retailers interested in the downtown base."
Martin Millspaugh, who helped guide the early Inner Harbor development, agreed that the store's commitment to Baltimore is a sign that change is coming.
"Downtown is thriving," he said. "Fifteen or 20 years ago one never would have thought something like this was possible."
Baltimore historian Gilbert Sandler said Filene's Basement - with its almost all-clothing inventory - will never replace the limitless variety of a Huztler's or a Hecht's. But in a new age of retail, Brodie said, something like Filene's Basement could be what those shops have evolved into.
"It's not like the old dinosaurs have come back," Brodie said. "These are the smart survivors."
If you consider Filene's Basement along with the appliances and electronics Best Buy is offering in the same building, added Sandler, a modern downtown shopper might be able to replicate the long-lost department store experience.
With Lockwood Place and Harbor East, Sandler said, the city is witnessing the stirrings of a new sort of Howard Street on the eastern edge of downtown.
"It's going to bring retailing to a part of downtown that never had it before," he said. "Maybe the two will become five and the five will become 10."
In attracting a large store like Filene's Basement, Baltimore has done what a lot of cities only wish they could, said Dave Feehan, president of the Washington-based International Downtown Association.
"It's a major coup," he said, explaining that in a typical older city, it's often not possible to find 30,000 square feet to fit a store like Filene's.
In Baltimore, beyond Lockwood Place, there aren't many such sites. But development officials hope national retailers will look at the former Mechanic Theater, where 80,000 square feet of retail is planned, and at the base of skyscrapers planned for the corner of Conway and Light streets and the site of the old News American building on Pratt Street.
"It's one of the first of many announcements," said Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry.
"Some companies see opportunity before others. You always have to have someone out there as a pioneer who leads the way."