Sarah Doherty, who teaches interdisciplinary sculpture at… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
At a forgettable, long-shuttered building on North Liberty Street that people hurry past without a second glance, LaTrice Whitaker will be selling cupcakes, playing jazz and pouring mugs of gourmet coffee. At a similarly empty building nearby, two local men will showcase furniture they craft by hand from salvaged wood.
And if Sarah Doherty has her way, after sundown every night, the blank facade of 307 W. Baltimore St. will become a virtual movie screen as she projects video artworks onto its arched front windows.
Over the next few months, lights will be flipped on at one darkened downtown address after another. Would-be entrepreneurs and artists will blow cobwebs from corners, wipe street grime from display windows and welcome people inside former stores and offices that no one's thought about in months, years or even decades.
Operation Storefront is what they're calling this fledgling campaign to breathe life into Baltimore's city center, where retail has struggled to find footing for generations and, on many blocks, there are as many closed stores as open ones. Instead of waiting for another real estate boom that might not arrive, with a little money and some creative thinking, downtown boosters fashioned their own boomlet, encouraging about a dozen dreamers to grab an empty property and start using it — right now.
Riffing on a revitalization concept that's worked in New York City and New Haven, Conn., the Downtown Partnership last year announced that if people proposed creative ways to use vacant commercial space — even short-term ideas — the nonprofit would not only help them find a building, but give them as much as $10,000 to get the project off the ground.
"When people think about cities, they usually think about buildings but it's the life on the streets that gives a city its energy and character," Downtown Partnership spokesman Mike Evitts says. "We see underused spaces in the older parts of downtown as an opportunity to incubate new street-level activity. These are places that can add energy and character. At the same time, we're helping budding entrepreneurs by taking some of the guesswork and financial risk out of opening a new business."
Of the approximately 100 applications submitted, about a dozen made the cut — proposals for everything from a bagel shop to an artist collective to a designer clothing boutique to a home base for local enthusiasts for Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian art form that blends martial arts with dance.
Baltimore has experimented a bit recently with setting up temporarily businesses in vacant buildings. Short-term "pop-up" shops appeared in Harbor East over the holidays. And in 2005, the city allowed artists to set up a gallery on the ground floor of a Calvert Street address that was slated to be razed for luxury apartments. When those development plans stalled and then froze in the downturn, Current Gallery ended up enjoying years at the site, rent-free.
Operation Storefront, however, is the first organized push to use the technique as a tool for revitalization. The thought is that sparking street life in parts of parts downtown that already have a little going on — albeit not much — will encourage still more.
Though Downtown Partnership hasn't counted, officials with the organization guess there are likely about 200 vacant street-level commercial properties in the city's core. The most frustrating areas include much of the west side as well as the once-thriving Charles and Howard street corridors — areas that have had some luck, but nowhere near enough to keep streets vibrant and busy as officials wish.
With the program, participants who expect to stay at their sites long term will do so by paying market-rate rent. Others who will occupy the spaces only for a while will have their rent discounted or waived altogether.
When Doherty, a sculpture professor at Maryland Institute College of Art, moved to Baltimore from San Diego, the desolate neighborhoods shocked her but inspired her, too. She found them awful yet beautiful. In 2009 she installed a series of works in an alley behind 23 vacant rowhomes along North Calvert Street. So when she heard about Operation Storefront, she jumped at the chance to try something similar.
"What gets really exciting is to activate these buildings through creative energy," Doherty says. "It really does a lot to create a sense of transformation and vitality in what is otherwise quite fallow and essentially rotting."
Doherty will be working with a grand Baltimore Street property known as the Faust Building, long empty despite its elegant, cast-iron façade.