Redefining downtown

August 01, 2007|By Kirby Fowler

The old definition of downtown Baltimore - as an area encompassing Charles Center and a few blocks radiating out from Pratt and Light streets - is obsolete.

Over the last several years, the city's central business district has expanded into adjacent areas, moving east along the waterfront to new neighborhoods such as Harbor East. This expansion calls for a new definition of downtown and its business district, one that properly captures the geographic breadth and diversity of the evolving neighborhoods within downtown.

If we don't properly redefine downtown's business district, we risk harming our ability to attract new employers and residents who want to be part of a diverse urban neighborhood but who are misled by the exclusive focus on "business" in the central business district name.

In terms of geography, a narrowly defined central business district fails to acknowledge how much our downtown neighborhoods are all starting to connect together, almost seamlessly.

There is no central business district anymore. The new downtown has more and more residents and retailers in the mix, and activity lasting long past 6 p.m. Think city center, think west side, think Inner Harbor. Think a 1-mile radius around Pratt and Light streets with more than 100,000 employees, 37,000 residents and $5.16 billion in ongoing development projects. That's the new downtown, and it ranks sixth in the country for the number of employees, eighth for the number of residents, and eighth again for the number of households earning more than $75,000 per year.

Downtown isn't shifting, as some may suggest - it's expanding, and not at the expense of the "traditional" business district, city center.

The office occupancy rates in city center are strong, even with the addition of new office space and developments in Harbor East and Canton Crossing. A survey conducted by the Downtown Partnership in mid-July shows that the majority of city center office towers are at least 90 percent occupied. The few that fall short of this mark either have tenants about to move in or are moving office tenants out as part of a conversion of the building to hotel or residences.

City center is attracting businesses from outside Baltimore, not just retaining employers. New businesses, such as Special Counsel and Pioneer Contracting, have arrived from Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, and California-based Imperial Capital Bank just opened up offices at 200 St. Paul St.

City center's older office buildings are being successfully converted to new uses. In the past decade, more than 24 buildings have been redeveloped into apartments and condominiums with ground-floor restaurants and retail. Large apartment buildings in city center are reporting 100 percent occupancy; some are indicating that they don't even have a day to turn around apartments between renters. At 414 Water St., 89 percent of the 312 condominium units are sold, and the building is not even open yet. And Redwood Street has become a veritable hotel row, with two hotels open and three under construction.

Public spaces are also coming back to life.

In June, Center Plaza reopened as a beautiful green space at Charles and Fayette streets. Major renovations to Preston Gardens are under way, and Hopkins Plaza is adorned with overflowing flowerpots, hanging baskets and new sculptures. The fountain at Charles and Pratt streets will begin operating again within a month after years of inactivity. Calvert Street will have a much more attractive streetscape completed by early 2008.

And, most significant, a comprehensive redesign of Pratt Street will add more retail, restaurants and landscaping to our city's premier boulevard.

When employers announce plans to move just six blocks from one part of downtown to another, that should be cause for celebration, not hand-wringing. There was a time when corporations were leaving the city altogether.

But now there is strong demand by companies and their employees to be located downtown, in all of its neighborhoods. We need a new definition of downtown that acknowledges this welcome evolution.

Kirby Fowler is president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. His e-mail is kfowler@dpob.org.

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