Brian Street stepped outside the barber shop where he works Monday at the mostly abandoned Old Town Mall to see a crowd of people surveying the corridor and discussing plans to demolish some of the empty buildings.
A group of officials, including Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, came to the 16-acre outdoor mall to announce a $300,000 investment to prepare the site for re-development. In all, the state's Strategic Demolition and Smart Growth Impact Fund will provide $5 million for 13 revitalization projects across Maryland.
Street, who started working at Sportsman's Barber Shop about six months ago, said families in the communities surrounding Old Town are desperate to see the mall restored to is former vibrancy.
"They tell me it was very, very crowded down here," Street told O'Malley. "When I got down here I was wondering, 'Where is everybody?'
"We need something down here."
Earlier this month, the Baltimore Development Corp. and Housing Authority of Baltimore City asked private developers to submit proposals to redevelop the old mall with a mix of residential units and retail. Those submissions are due in August.
The $300,000 grant will allow for the demolition of the 14 vacant buildings along the shopping strip, but Brenda McKenzie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said officials haven't decided which buildings will be razed and which will be preserved.
"If you look around, you're so close to downtown," McKenzie said. "You're close to [Johns Hopkins Hospital]. This really is a great, dynamic crossroads. The timing is perfect to figure out a development plan."
Old Town Mall has been the target of various redevelopment efforts over the past four decades, but McKenzie said she's confident the "market forces are strong." The property includes a 7.5-acre triangle at Ensor and Orleans streets and an 8.7-acre parcel on the former site of the Somerset Homes complex, which was torn down in 2009.
"There has been a lot of growth in and around the area, and this is really a great time for Old Town to move forward," she said.
The city isn't proposing any specific tax incentives now, but McKenzie said the officials are willing to consider proposals from private developers.
"We'll see what their creativity brings back and what's needed in order to move forward," she said.
Rawlings-Blake said she sees Old Town Mall as a way to connect the downtown business district to East Baltimore, in much of the same way Harbor East connected downtown to Fells Point and Canton. She called the investment a way to transform the community.
"For 150 years, this was a premier shopping district," the mayor said. "This was a bustling business area. Ask anyone about Old Town Mall and they'll share fond memories of holiday shopping at Epstein's or purchasing furniture at Kaufman's, visiting the market for groceries or holiday treats."
On Monday, Joyce Davis and her mother, Daisy Smith, took the bus from their home in Govans Manor to Old Town Mall to browse in the handful of stores and restaurants still in business — the Upscale Beauty Supply, Ayrdale Variety and Jay's Soul Food.
"I grew up as a kid around the corner," said Davis, 70. "There were always friendly people in the stores. We kids would come down here."
Davis and Smith remembered the days when Santa Claus handed out candy canes to children and vendors set up booths with fresh vegetables.
Smith, 86, said she's excited about the possibility the mall could be revitalized.
"I would love it," Smith said.
Other grants awarded in the city include $650,000 for the demolition of the New Psalmist Baptist Church, $650,000 for preparation of a 40-unit rental project in Broadway East, $350,000 for the design phase of the Center for Health Care and Healthy Living and $200,000 for the Community and Family Life Multiplex in East Baltimore.
Sean Welsh of the Baltimore Sun contributed to this article.