J. Kirby Fowler Jr. is president of the Downtown Partnership,… (LLOYD FOX, Baltimore Sun )
I sat in the Downtown Partnership's office this week and heard the new urban geographic labels being considered for Baltimore's emerging neighborhoods. With more than 1,000 new apartments being created this year in what we traditionally call downtown Baltimore, there is a momentum to define and give these residential enclaves an identity.
"In 2013, the development clock started again," said Kirby Fowler, the partnership's president. "As people are renting units, they are asking for a name change that tells just where they live."
The naming process is still in its early stages, but the Downtown Partnership has started working on possibilities.
The Bromo neighborhood designation would emerge for the street grid adjacent to the old Emerson Drug Co.'s landmark tower.
There is also Cathedral Hill for the area around the Basilica of the Assumption. If anyone doubts the hill in this name, just try climbing Saratoga Street westward from Calvert on a cold January day.
The area near The Standard (former Standard Oil building) apartment house and Mercy Medical Center would adopt another familiar name, Preston Gardens, after the stretch of urban green park that mixes walls, fountains and curved steps along St. Paul Place.
The namers at the Downtown Partnership have suggested Government Square for the environs of City Hall, where apartments seem to arrive on the market every time I walk around the neighborhood.
And a large chunk of middle downtown would be known as Charles Center. The area is larger than the original boundaries of the 1950s urban renewal district recalled for the Morris Mechanic Theatre and One Charles Center.
Indeed, downtown Baltimore is reinventing itself. The recession that began in 2008 took a toll on banks. As banks closed branches or merged, more real estate became available and found its way into the apartment conversion market. Aging office buildings became outdated as more modern structures opened facing the harbor.
"We are putting personality into parts of the city as people move back," said the partnership's Michael Evitts, a vice president of the organization. "An identity had been stripped away as residents left the city. Also, for years, there was a tendency not to mix uses in urban planning. People did not live where they worked."
I liked the naming because it will help define Baltimore's amorphous downtown, which those of us who grew up with Eutaw and Lombard (what would be the Bromo neighborhood) take for granted. The scores of millennials moving into these downtown lofts and former law offices may start using these names. If it doesn't catch on with the new renters, the names will certainly help the leasing agents.
I'd personally like to see Redwood Street and what I think of as the rich collection of buildings that rose after the 1904 Baltimore Fire get their due with a term that conjures the golden age of the American skyscraper.
The new destinations also point up another issue. What about the dreary physical appearance of the streets and sidewalks that serve these often well-renovated places? After all, people are paying good money for these granite countertops and halogen light fixtures — and amazing views from the upper floors.
As I walk these soon to be newly recognized sections, I see dirty streets. Not so much blowing trash, but worn-out paving and sidewalks. Except for a few sections in the heart of Charles Center, the old downtown's street-level amenities do not compare well with what we've become accustomed to in Harbor East. It's very well that new places envisioned like Harbor Point merit tax breaks and attention (Central Avenue is being treated to a total rebuild) but what about Light and Baltimore or Fayette streets, main arteries in these emergent neighborhoods?
I can see the attraction of living in a Bromo or Charles Center with its downtown hum. But along with these names, why not get rid of the encrusted chewing gum underfoot? It does work. I watched Charles Street (think Cathedral Hill and Mount Vernon) get a much-needed streetscape/beauty makeover. Soon the apartment magic began happening there.