By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun
November 6, 2011
From his 14th-floor office on West Saratoga Street, Jay A. Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, surveys the urban campus on downtown's west side and envisions the future.
Despite years of revitalization efforts, too many blocks near the growing campus of professional schools and medical facilities contain shuttered storefronts and vacant buildings.
But Perman is not wringing his hands. Instead, he and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake are leading an effort to tackle the west side anew.
A task force is working on a broad plan to enliven streets and make the area safer to live, work and shop, while also focusing on problems in areas such as Lexington Market. To start, group members are tackling not only redevelopment but also issues such as public safety, substance abuse, transportation, and arts and culture — all with an eye toward changing perceptions.
"In five years, I would like to think that a change in mind-set has occurred for those who come here to work and be served and for those who live and work downtown," said Perman, who seeks to lure students, faculty and other employees to the area. "We want to be able to say, 'You can live here, and you don't have to get in the car to get groceries or go to the cleaners.'"
The work of the task force signals a switch in direction and focus in moving west side initiatives forward, officials say. Rather than the site-by-site approach to redevelopment that had been previously pursued, Rawlings-Blake's administration is pursuing a broader, neighborhood-wide approach, Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos said.
"It's a new time, and we need new ideas," said Parthemos. "This had to be a completely new way of doing business, not the same people talking about the same things."
The west side has seen its share of successful projects over the past decade, including the rebirth of The Hippodrome and the renovation of the former Stewart's department store at Howard and West Lexington streets into Catholic Relief Services' headquarters. More than 1,000 apartments have been created in new or renovated buildings.
University of Maryland projects have helped to reshape the west side's skyline, and campus plans call for additional research facilities, clearer identities for the professional schools, and a centerpiece plaza. A new health science research lab is being designed for a spot between the Pharmacy Hall and the Dental School. And the university is eyeing a complex that the Social Security Administration plans to vacate, space that could accommodate labs for faculty research.
Overall, the goal is to create a distinct campus — but one that is part of the west side, Perman said. "We want people to know when you are on campus — but we don't want to make it look like … you're on an island."
Other west side projects have stalled, including the so-called Superblock — an effort to eliminate blight in the area between Charles Center and the university.
Plans for the $150 million project by developers Lexington Square Partners have been stalled by the recession and numerous legal challenges. Lexington Square seeks to build apartments, shops, parking and either a hotel or another apartment tower in the 200 block of West Lexington Street.
The waiting is frustrating to merchants and others in the area. On the block that Lexington Square plans to redevelop, only the Rainbow women's discount apparel store is open. All the other storefronts are shuttered.
Across West Lexington Street, buildings were razed to make way for a mixed-use development, but today the fenced-in area contains only grass and trees. Progress on that site depends on the Lexington Square project getting started first.
Farther east, in the 100 block of West Lexington, several storefronts hang on, including a wig shop and a beauty supply shop, as well as a jewelry store that moved in anticipating the new development.
"People don't come to Lexington Street to shop," said Hong Paik, owner of the wig shop, U.S. Hair of Baltimore, as a lone customer tried on wigs. Paik has run the store for three decades and says business has slowed over the last 10 to 15 years.
These days business is especially slow. "There's nothing going on," Paik said. "Everyone thinks Lexington Street is closed."
City officials, who installed new sidewalks and street lamps, say the street is definitely open. But they say the legal challenges have made it difficult for the developer to sign up anchor tenants.
As the area waits for new development, the task force — charged with overseeing the swath of downtown bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west and Pratt, Charles and Chase streets — has focused on some problems at a west side landmark: Lexington Market.
A law enforcement team made up of city police, mass transit police and campus police has begun patrolling in and around the historic facility. And a social worker has been assigned to help combat problems associated with the illegal sale and use of prescription drugs, offering rehab services to users.
At a recent meeting, task force members offered other ideas for ways to improve the facility.
"There is a lot of thinking about the future of the market, both what's being sold, how healthy it is and about the physical facilities," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development arm.
The task force's work is applauded by WestSide Renaissance Inc.'s executive director, Ron Kreitner, though he said it was too early to measure results.
"There's certainly an effort to re-energize the effort from the public-sector standpoint," he said. "It's certainly a new approach on the part of the city."
Kreitner said he hoped to see a focus on finding appropriate uses for vacant buildings owned by the city.
"There needs to be … a strategy to maintain those properties and find new uses for them," he said, adding that "fresh thinking" was needed to determine what approaches work best, especially for smaller buildings that he said were well-suited for entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Officials have seen encouraging signs on some potential projects. Developers have shown interest in two city-owned sites, one at Liberty Street and Park Avenue and another at Liberty and Clay streets, prompting the BDC to issue requests for proposals. Both sites had sparked interest from developers several years ago, but plans were abandoned during the recession.
"We're seeing interest of the kind we haven't seen for the last couple of years," Brodie said, adding that that interest was driven by "a little bit of a sense that the worst is over in commercial real estate."
He said he expected future west side redevelopment would be driven by demand for downtown rental housing.
"That's where we see the great potential for downtown," Brodie said. "The driver is residential, and creating neighborhoods."
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