West-side Story: One Step Forward, One Step Back

March 31, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

Will this be the year when that elusive magic touch arrives at Howard and Lexington? My eyes have glazed over while I've read stacks and more stacks of redevelopment plans for Baltimore's old downtown shopping district.

Seriously. There were proposals for Lexington Street during the mayoral administration of Theodore R. McKeldin. That's a long time for a place to be ailing - 40 years and counting.

And because I enjoyed so many good times in this part of Baltimore, I hope that it can make the transition to a new day.

Other places have been reconstituted and recovered a lot faster. In the 1950s, East Pratt Street facing the harbor was the domain of downtown panhandlers. It was a skid row of cheap bars and hotels; Baltimoreans tolerated it at the time because we had a working waterfront that justified the warehouse-tattoo parlor look. But in just about a decade, Pratt Street jumped from flophouse to Harborplace.

Today, the corner of Pratt and Gay is a prestigious retailing address with hefty commercial rents and corresponding tax assessments.

The change has hardly been as rapid at Howard and Lexington. The area around the Lexington Market and the old department stores has been locked in a frustrating dance of one step forward, one step back.

I think of billionaire David Murdock's tries in the early 1980s to make something of the old Hochschild-Hutzler stores site. Developer David Hillman turned the old May-Hecht store into apartments. The state pumped millions into Camden Yards and the Hippodrome. The Bank of America took on Howard, Baltimore and Fayette streets for the Centerpoint project. The Weinberg Foundation restored the old Stewart's store.

Along the way, Howard Street was completely repaved, then was torn up for light rail track. In 2001, a tunnel under the street made national headlines when a train caught fire.

The University of Maryland has transformed its sprawling downtown campus along the Greene-Lombard corridor and thereby created a demand for downtown housing for students and staff.

And this spring, construction crews are making BGE's old Lexington building into apartments.

When you start listing the individual components here - and the money invested in them -the west side should be enjoying a nice comeback, as so many other Baltimore neighborhoods have.

Not so. One day this week, I walked along Lexington Street from Charles Center to Lexington Market. I looked at the boarded-up windows, the stores with going-out-of-business signs, the trash on the streets. I've lost patience with the promises and plans.

I thought that by 2007, something would have been accomplished here, given the efforts of so many downtown players.

If we could turn around the moribund Pratt Street of the 1960s, why is Lexington Street still such a mess?

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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