"Some merchants have left with the economy, but we've been able to replace most of those merchants," Genco said. "By and large, it's a very healthy market."
Renovations at Broadway Market in Fells Point have allowed tenant restaurants to expand their menus with food cooked onsite and added windows to a previously windowless building.
The city plans renovations this fall to Northeast Market on Monument Street, including a new façade, lighting and seating.
Next will come interior improvements to The Avenue market on Pennsylvania Avenue that officials hope will bring the market, now about a third vacant, to nearly 95 percent occupancy.
The biggest challenge for Cross Street and other city markets, Genco said, has been weathering the recession and slow recovery.
"The markets aren't unique," he said. "Every business in Baltimore and in the country is competing for a smaller piece of the pie."
Bruce Lee, who has operated Bruce Lee Wings at Cross Street Market for 23 years, said business has fallen off in the past few years, partly beause of the economy and competing food outlets, but also because high parking costs keep some of the downtown lunch crowd away.
He said changing demographics in the neighborhood also have led to less demand for fresh food and produce over the years.
"Yuppies don't cook," Lee said.
Professors at Morgan and Maryland try to give their students real-life projects. But the Cross Street Market project, they say, was unusual in a couple of ways. It offered students the opportunity to work across universities, and it was an idea that sprouted in the community.
Each school has approached the project differently.
At Morgan, students in studio classes taught by Roy and Kargon have been given a two-part task: First, design a town hall for a parcel across Charles Street from the market; then, create a plan to reinvent the market itself.
The students have been given specific parameters: Design a two-story structure that would include the market stalls on the first level and workshops on the second level for making garments that could be sold in neighborhood shops.
Students presented their concepts for a town hall last week, during Roy and Kargon's studio session Thursday evening on the second floor of the Montebello Building at Morgan's School of Architecture and Planning.
Graduate student Adewale Olaiya, 35, who said he dreams of someday designing skyscrapers, had stayed up all night to design three potential town hall buildings.
"My impression of the market is that it was enclosed, and yet [inside] you have this beautiful view of what a normal street market would be," he said.
He said he thought the market would benefit by creating easier access to parking for those who want to drive in and pick up a few items, and perhaps staying open longer than the 7 p.m. closing time.
Kirk Eby, who is working in urban planning in Gaithersburg while pursuing his master's degree at Morgan State, said he liked the idea of opening the market up to the street in a way that could better engage passers-by.
"Once you're inside, it's a pretty interesting place; with the various vendors, it's pretty amazing, " Eby said. "But unfortunately, you don't see that from the street."
The University of Maryland students, taught by Michael Stanton, are taking a different approach. Each is expected to come up with two sets of ideas: an unrestricted vision for the market and how it might best relate to the neighborhood; and improvements that could be made under existing city codes and zoning.
In the past, Genco said, the city has paid consultants to study the markets. He is looking forward to seeing the students' presentations.
"Any time you have the opportunity to let bright young people get involved in the community and give them the opportunity to have a positive impact, it's very positive," he said. "It's exciting they're willing to do it; it's good for the community and good for the market."
The College Park students have visited some Baltimore areas, including Waverly, Hampden and Lexington Market, and talked with local architects. Madlen Simon, director of the architecture program at Maryland's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in College Park, said the studio is interested in getting the students' work and research exposed to as many city officials as possible, including the mayor.
"We're very interested in serving communities in our home state," Simon said. "And we're particularly excited about a project that can have an impact on the way people are thinking about the development of a neighborhood in Baltimore. We think students' work can make a contribution to the discussion."