More than a bookstore

January 29, 2008

The 400 block of W. Baltimore St. is a sorry sight, and efforts to redevelop that stretch between the University of Maryland, Baltimore's stately law school and the classy revival of the Hippodrome Theatre have been unimpressive. But an agreement reached yesterday to relocate the UMB bookstore (under a Barnes & Noble banner) in a renovated building on the northeast corner offers great promise for an expanded, revitalized west side.

It's been tough going to finalize this deal, but the agreement is an investment worth making because of the benefits both parties, the neighborhood and the city should enjoy. Baltimore's west side has seen extensive development in recent years, but the finished projects have often functioned as islands unto themselves. The relocation of UMB's bookstore and development of the north-side properties would invigorate a neglected corner and connect it to the redevelopment eastward to downtown.

City Hall deserves credit for pushing an idea that had generated little interest in the past and offering some financial incentives. Mayor Sheila Dixon reached out personally to UMB President David J. Ramsay, who said he favored the proposal, but it had to work financially for the university. UMB had planned to put its bookstore in its new student center, which is under construction. Relocating it to the West Baltimore Street site meant the university would have to pay rent.

It would have been easy for UMB to continue with its original plan; its contributions to a newly imagined west side of town are more than evident in and around the Baltimore campus. But Mr. Ramsay wisely recognized the potential the A&R Development Corp. site held in size and scope, for his university and the city.

Bookstores are the new diners and neighborhood bars, and the west side needs that kind of buzz and enticement for patrons to stay past dark. With Barnes & Noble as manager, the university bookstore should become a magnet for a caf? crowd, book enthusiasts, afternoon browsers, early theatergoers and students who seek a livelier atmosphere to finish off that last paper. The Johns Hopkins University's bookstore in Charles Village shows what's possible at Baltimore and Paca.

But the UMB project covers only one side of the 400 block of W. Baltimore St., and its mirror reflection is in just as sorry a state. The imperative for the developers and the city now should be to finish what's been started here and the sooner the better.

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