The Monumental Life Insurance Co. buildings on Charles St.… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
The greater Mount Vernon neighborhood has grown stronger, more confident and busier lately. What's been happening in this eminently walkable district?
I tend to think of Baltimore's midtown neighborhood as being far more extensive than Mount Vernon. I see it as everything south of North Avenue, with Charles Street as its spine. This fall, the space long occupied by Hasslinger's and the Chesapeake Restaurant is being readied for a new opening. Maybe it was the overly long closure of the Chesapeake, as the neighboring Tapas Teatro flourished, that made me so impatient.
I spoke with developer Ernst Valery, who told me that a new Chesapeake and a Belgian restaurant would be coming in 2013 now that historic building guidelines have been addressed. Getting the history and the architectural design right is no joke in this part of Baltimore. The history is one of the reasons why Baltimoreans love this area.
It is curious that the locations of two of Charles Street's legendary restaurants are on the road out of a long commercial limbo. Another vacancy was the old Danny's at the corner at Charles and Biddle. After speaking with its owner, Steve Bloom, I learned that Danny's signature dishes, steak Diane and soft crabs "the size of whales," would definitely not get another chance.
"I would have loved to lease it to a restaurant like Petit Louis or Cinghiale, but the space really is not big enough," he said. "And there are many people who remember eating at Danny's, but that is not going to happen again."
He said the next tenant will be a Potbelly sandwich shop, which also has a location in the Greenhouse, an apartment building he owns at Greene and Pratt near Oriole Park.
Bloom, who owns several rental properties here, plans another apartment conversion at St. Paul and Centre streets.
"The days of sleepy Mount Vernon are over," he said.
He credits renewed activity in the neighborhood to its location and the presence of a busier Penn Station and the success of the Circulator bus, which he often uses.
"At least half our tenants do not have cars," he said. "That's why Mount Vernon works for them. I see a lot more activity at the railroad station, too."
The Potbelly sandwich shop will join other national chains on Charles Street — Chipotle, Starbuck's, Sun Trust and Subway. It was not so long ago that the corner of Charles and Preston was a commercial void, a parking lot. Nearby, at Maryland and Biddle, a new student-only high-rise apartment house, the Varsity, was completed this summer. Chase Brexton Health Services began its conversion of the old Monumental Life building in the last few weeks.
The heart and soul of Mount Vernon are its 19th-century residences. The paint seemed wet at one of the more grand ones, a brownstone-decorated 1304 St. Paul St., which had been the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center and, before that, Whitman, Requardt & Associates engineering's offices. It and neighboring buildings are now 22 new apartments, all a few steps from the rail station.
The neighborhood has a new landmark — some might say gateway building — the John and Frances Angelos Law Center at the University of Baltimore. I had an advance tour this week (it opens in the spring) and was dazzled by the views from its north-facing windows, which overlook the Beaux Arts facade of Penn Station.
I marveled at the work of German architects Behnisch Architekten, who won the design competition. They have produced a building of exceptional quality and ingenuity. I could not help think about Penn Station and its empty upper floors. What will the next few years bring? And what of the talk about developing the surface parking lot at Charles and Lanvale?
The busy sidewalks seem to say that people are voting with their feet. The blocks that seemed dormant in the 1970s are a different story today.