The graduate architecture students at Morgan State University crowded around professor Sanjit Roy as he critiqued the miniature buildings one by one.
Roy picked up one model, carved out a section with an Exacto knife and reattached it at another spot to demonstrate how to improve the flow.
"An urban site is ultimately all about movement," Roy told the students, and sent them back to their workstations to make revisions.
Leaders in Federal Hill hope the students' work will lead to real changes in their neighborhood. It was the Federal Hill Main Street program that approached the architecture programs at the University of Maryland and Morgan State about developing new visions for Cross Street Market and the surrounding business district.
The market, established in the 19th century, is one of five owned by the city in the oldest continuously operating public market system in the nation.
Ideally, the neighborhood leaders say, the showcase and publication next spring of the students' work will spark interest from the community, developers and city officials in revitalizing the area.
"We have a market that's not functioning to its capability," said Michael Burton, the local architect who chairs the Federal Hill Main Street design committee. "The challenge is what can be done to make the market the heart and soul of the neighborhood public space."
Burton and others say the two-block-long, windowless concrete market, built in 1952 after a fire destroyed an earlier building, could be made more open and inviting.
It was Burton who approached the universities.
"I thought, 'How can we make our neighborhood a better place in a bigger context, by really looking hard at our neighborhood, at the business district and what's working and what's not?'" he said.
He considered launching a design competition. But opening it up to professional firms, he concluded, would make the process too political.
"I wanted it to become more of an inspirational thing, to inspire people to think about the neighborhood business district and to think differently about it," he said. "This is a great place, and we can do better."
Officials at the University of Maryland and Morgan State were eager to collaborate.
"The Cross Street Market never really kept up with the times," said Jeremy Kargon, an assistant professor in Morgan State who heads one of the studios taking on the project. "The idea is we want all our students to think more seriously about what urban life should be."
Burton's idea for a design competition evolved into a design charrette, in which the Main Street group would act as the client for the student architects. The Federal Hill representatives told the universities they were interested in finding ways to raise the profile of the market.
Though student projects are rarely built, Burton and the professors leading the classes hope the ideas will be considered in future planning.
They're hoping to revitalize a market they say has failed to keep up with the growth of a neighborhood that has grown from a working-class enclave to a destination for professionals.
The city last renovated Cross Street Market in October 2005, sprucing up the facade with new entrances, exterior billboards and additional lighting.
The concrete flooring inside was replaced with tile. Longtime tenant Nick's Seafood also renovated its space at that time, said Casper J. Genco, executive director of the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., the nonprofit organization that runs the five city-owned markets.
"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."
The city has since turned its attention to its other markets.
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."