The Lord Baltimore Hotel downtown has been recently renovated. (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
The grand news that Questar Properties wants to build a landmark 43-story apartment building on the site of the old McCormick spice plant near the Inner Harbor must strike some long-timers as shocking. I'm thinking particularly of suburban cynics who seem to take twisted glee in Baltimore's flaws, starting with its reputation for violent crime. They mock and dismiss as fantastical Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal of adding 10,000 new families to the city by 2022.
Or perhaps I assume the plan for auld McCormick's would elicit shock because of our chronically low expectations. They have hovered like gray clouds over the region for so long — despite all the progress that has occurred and despite all the problems that have persisted.
Even the city's planning director seemed a bit awe-struck by the design for the blue-glass apartment tower submitted for review by Chicago architects Solomon Cordwell Buenz. "You're really well on your way to achieving that elegant and distinctive piece of skyline," said Thomas Stosur. "When can you break ground?"
The answer: later this year.
A bunch of Baltimoreans never thought this would happen. Every time I walked or drove past the old McCormick site, I assumed it must be profitable as a parking lot. The Inner Harbor is for suburban visitors and tourists, after all; they need places for their SUVs and minivans. The waterfront is great, but Baltimore doesn't have sufficient affluence to make investment in downtown worthwhile for developers.
I'm not saying that's true today — obviously, developers think otherwise — but it was our middling assumption for a very long time, particularly through all those years of population loss.
Even the argument to save the old McCormick building on Light Street — to preserve some piece of Baltimore's industrial history — seemed ridiculous and quaint. The Inner Harbor needed parking for visitors, not a vacant old building, even if the aroma of of allspice lingered.
How things have changed. From Locust Point to Fells Point, Otterbein to Canton, from Federal Hill to Mount Vernon, the city is packed not only with visitors but with residents, many of them new.
The 401 Census Tract — bounded by Franklin Street on the north and Pratt Street on the south, on the west by Paca Street and on the east by President Street — was the fastest-growing in the city over the last decade.
More and more people want to be downtown. They don't want to commute; they want to live close to the action and spontaneity of city life. There is an emerging generation of professionals (from the "eds and meds" and tech fields) who want this — because it's convenient, because it means a smaller carbon footprint, because there's more social diversity in an urban culture.
The Downtown Partnership has described the new inhabitants of the 401 Census Tract as "young professionals looking for a vibrant post-college home; retirees trading county homes for city living; students taking advantage of our stellar academic institutions; D.C. commuters living better for less."
In the heart of the 401 is the old Baltimore Trust Co., the Art Deco tower at 10 Light Street known more recently as the Bank of America building. Shocking news: It is being converted into 445 apartments. Inside and out, the building is fabulous, a 34-story titan of the old downtown that is being given a new life by a Virginia developer. People who rent there will be in touch with Baltimore's past, present and future every day.
Here's another shock, though perhaps of a milder nature: The Lord Baltimore Hotel, at West Baltimore and Hanover Streets, across from the Morris Mechanic Theatre, has emerged from a multimillion-dollar renovation looking refreshed and superb in large and small ways, from its classy lobby to its clublike cocktail lounge to its regal Calvert Ballroom. A restyled French bistro, with yellows and blues that evoke Matisse, is now one of the most beautiful restaurant interiors in the city.
The Rubell family of Florida bought the LB a little more than a year ago for $10 million and made quick work of its restoration, bringing in Scott Sanders, formerly a Ralph Lauren designer, to reimagine the hotel for the 21st century.
It no longer feels like a Radisson squeezed inside a French Renaissance trophy of a building; it feels simply like a classic old hotel with modern comforts and amenities. (I quibble with the gray grouting in the tiles in the bathrooms of the guest rooms, but I assume that was in keeping with Sanders' inspired idea of using black and gray menswear fabrics, with brighter accents, to give the guest rooms their business-traveler aesthetic. I just would have stopped at the shower curtains.)
But what I think about grout doesn't matter. What matters is the Lord Baltimore is great again. What matters is that more people — outsiders, insiders, new arrivals — believe in Baltimore and see something coming that's beyond our expectations. May we all continue to be shocked and amazed.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.