Baltimore's historic Lexington Market would be razed and rebuilt under a plan announced Friday by the board overseeing the market and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, as her administration aims to set in motion the transformation of the city's public markets in the final days of her term.
The proposal calls for rebuilding Lexington Market, which has stood on the same site since 1782, in a multistory glass building on the parking lot just south of the current building between Eutaw and Paca streets. A park would replace those buildings and Lexington Street would be extended through the area.
The proposal comes nearly two years after a study called for overhauling the city's biggest public market to make it appealing to more customers, improve its offerings and make it an engine for growth in an area that the city has sought to revitalize for years.
Renovating — not replacing — the market was considered the leading option when the board hired an architect in August 2015 to design a new market.
But officials said building new emerged as the best option after vendors questioned why the city would undertake a complicated, phased renovation of the existing 64-year-old structure, which is beset by a host of problems. In addition to its age, the existing market space raises concerns about safety, drug dealing and cleanliness.
"With a renovated Lexington Market, we hope to create a new destination, ensuring that we retain those vendors that people have depended on for years but also provide opportunities for new vendors to thrive," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.
Lexington Market Inc., a nonprofit created by the city to run the market, is looking to spend $35 million to $40 million on the plan — less than the currently estimated construction costs. Though some funding has been allocated, much more money would be needed to see the project through.
The intent is to seek public and private support for the project.
"It is very hard to sell a project without having the vision in place," said Kirby Fowler, who chairs the Lexington Market board. "Now we're able to unveil the rendering and be more aggressive in terms of seeking funding."
Mayor-elect Catherine Pugh declined to comment Friday through a spokesman. She appeared to support the plan in a promotional video released in connection with the announcement.
"This is a great opportunity not only to provide that employment opportunity but to revitalize this part of the city," she said in the video.
A spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young declined to offer an opinion, saying he had not been aware of the plan and expects to be briefed about it next week.
"It was news to him," said Lester Davis, the spokesman. "I think he just wants to get his arms around it."
The plan for Lexington Market came on the heels of a deal with Caves Valley Partners to operate Cross Street Market in Federal Hill and as the city offered two of the city's other markets — Broadway Market in Fells Point and Hollins Market — for private ownership. Bids for those markets are due in February.
The strategy adopted by Rawlings-Blake's administration reduces the city's role at its markets in some of the strongest neighborhoods, effectively privatizing operations in Fells Point, Federal Hill and Hollins Market. The Baltimore Public Markets Corp. also oversees markets on Pennsylvania Avenue and in East Baltimore.
The proposal for Lexington Market drew mixed reactions from customers Friday, with some nostalgic for the long-standing institution and others eager to see an upgrade.
"Tear it down. It's filthy," said Roxane Harrison of Baltimore as she ate lunch with her 2-year-old son Ji'Breel on her lap. Harrison said she sticks with certain stalls, only buying food from the ones that are clean and have quality food.
But Mary Floyd and Flip Eafford, a couple from West Baltimore, were shocked to learn that the Lexington Market building would be replaced.
"I'm against that," Floyd said before digging into her lunch. "That don't make sense. Why would you tear down history?"
Floyd said there's nothing wrong with Lexington Market that a new coat of paint and some repairs wouldn't fix.
"You might as well leave well enough alone," Eafford said.
While Lexington Market traces its roots to 1782, the current buildings on the east and west side of Paca Street opened in 1952 after the previous market burned in a fire, with an arcade addition opening on the east side in 1982.
The proposed new Lexington Market would be about 97,000 square feet, roughly two-thirds the size of the existing buildings on the east side of Paca Street, said Robert Thomas, Baltimore Public Markets' executive director.
The Baltimore-based Murphy & Dittenhafer architecture firm and Floura Teeter landscape architecture firm worked on the design.
The plan to raze and rebuild would allow the existing East Market and arcade to remain open and the merchants operating while the new location is being built.
Plans for the market building on the west side of Paca Street site are still being worked out. They could include redevelopment of the site with a private partner, Fowler said.
Thomas said a new building will help the markets corporation save on utilities and other maintenance costs, and avoid the cost of creating temporary facilities. It also poses fewer problems for the roughly 100 businesses currently leasing space there, he said.
"The main key … is that this plan is less disruptive," Thomas said. "The merchants move one time."
The market roughly breaks even today, with revenue from rents and an infusion of income from nearby parking, Thomas said. The 2015 master plan for the market estimated annual vendor sales at about $17.6 million, and predicted a renovation could help push that past $30 million.
Businesses such as Faidley Seafood are expected to have a spot in the new, smaller market, where the number of vendors would fall to about 70, according to Friday's announcement.
As plans firm up, Thomas said the markets corporation would review leases to determine the mix of merchants. Higher rents are on the table, as are requirements that merchants have an online presence and take credit cards, he said.
Minas Houvardas, who has owned the Berger's Bakery stall for 45 years, said stall owners have been let down before, such as when big crowds were promised — but never materialized — when the baseball and football stadiums were built a few blocks south of the market.
But he expressed optimism about a new market building, saying it might succeed at drawing sports fans and tourists along with the regulars, he said.
"We hope if they make a new market it will be exciting and bring people back," Houvardas said. "They'll see something different and something new."
The master plan released in 2015 also called for more fresh-food options. The new structure could include a community room and teaching kitchen.
Kay Adler, a 77-year-old photographer who lives in Mount Vernon, said she visits the market a couple of times a month and enjoys photographing musicians there. She said a new building could improve the market's reputation — and new food would be welcome.
"I would like to see better food," she said, as she sipped a drink. Adler said she rarely gets anything to eat. "To be honest with you, I'm seldom satisfied."
Developer Shaffin Jetha, who plans a $60 million project with about 235 market-rate apartments and some shops about a block away on Fayette Street, said the city's interest in improving Lexington Market is part of what convinced him to invest. The growth of the University of Maryland, Baltimore was another major factor.
Jetha said a better market could accelerate improvements in the neighborhood.
"It's currently a detriment to the neighborhood rather than an asset," he said, "so if they can do what they say …"
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood and Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.