Station North Revival

Our View: Parkway Proposal Could Enlarge A Midtown Destination For Creative Types

August 21, 2009

With the right team and the right project, a renovated Parkway theater could become the much-needed centerpiece of the fledgling arts district north of Penn Station. The strip along North Charles Street between Mount Royal and North avenues has long been a lively destination for movie- and theatergoers. But after the area became the first in the city to receive state designation as an arts and entertainment district in 2001, it took off as a magnet for young artists, musicians and other creative types.

They converted its abandoned factories into studio lofts, rehabbed dilapidated rowhouses and opened new businesses that are reviving the once-declining neighborhoods of Charles North and Greenmount West. What's most remarkable about the transformation is that it has been accomplished almost entirely through the "sweat equity" of artsy urban pioneers rather than through significant infusions of capital from private developers or government.

But now the city has received two proposals from major developers aimed at transforming the historic Parkway into a stand-alone entertainment destination that would complement the area's current attractions and extend the district's reach all the way to the southwest corner of Charles Street and North Avenue. One plan envisions a multipurpose theater complex for dramatic and live music performances; the other proposal calls for a 600-seat dining and entertainment space for first-run and independent films, live comedy shows and other acts.

These are the kinds of projects an arts district needs to really take off and fly. The current downturn has tempered expectations of a quick turnaround for the area, but the progress already made bodes well for the future, and barring another jolt to the economy it seems irreversible. Over the longer term, the goal should be extending new development to the other corners of the Charles Street-North Avenue intersection as anchors for revival along the east-west axes of the district.

That would fulfill the grand design envisioned last year by Mayor Sheila Dixon of turning the 100-acre arts and entertainment district into a $1 billion cultural crossroads during the next 30 years, and it's achievable if the city works strategically with developers and sweat equity urban pioneers like the ones who have begun transforming the area.

But officials will also need to pay very close attention to the costs city government is likely to bear. Both proposals are still in the early stages, and analysts haven't had a chance to vet the financial details of either. Before settling on one or the other, they'll need to figure out which makes the most sense from both a business point of view and in terms of how well it fits the character of the community. Notwithstanding the tremendous enthusiasm these proposals have generated, that's the only way to make sure that taxpayers get their money's worth.

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