A listless west-side block of downtown Baltimore will undergo an energetic makeover if an idea generated by DIY-style theater troupes and local developer Winstead "Ted" Rouse comes to fruition.
Their plan, submitted earlier this year when the Baltimore Development Corp. issued a request for proposals, envisions turning three abandoned buildings in the 400 block of N. Howard Street, between West Franklin and West Mulberry, into a hub of theater, dance and more. It could open as early as 2016.
"It is indicative of the interest and progress we are seeing on the west side as a whole," said Brenda McKenzie, the BDC's president and CEO. "We received one proposal for those properties [408-414 N. Howard St.]. But one good proposal is all we need."
The project committee of the BDC, which meets Wednesday, will "say yea or nay," McKenzie said. If it's yea, the proposal will go to the full board, which will meet by the end of July.
The plan, with a total cost that could top $7 million, could give a substantial boost to a part of town — in and around the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District — that has struggled. Last year, city officials cut ties with the developer of the long-delayed Superblock project, and the area continues to deal with crime.
Still, there have been positives. Everyman Theatre's opening on West Fayette Street last year is a major example of redevelopment in the neighborhood; the recent launch of a restaurant, Forno Baltimore, across the street from the Hippodrome Theatre on North Eutaw Street, is another.
The Howard Street theater proposal envisions three separate venues, each with its own street-level performance space and its own marquee announcing events presented by the likes of Annex Theater, EMP Collective, Acme Corporation and Stillpointe Theatre Initiative. Upstairs areas are envisioned as a beehive of various cultural, social and business enterprises.
"The big thing about this is that we are pooling together a number of companies," said Evan Moritz, artistic director of Annex Theatre. "We felt there could be better strength through numbers."
The groups, all run by artists in their mid-20s to mid-30s, are among those that have been helping to fuel Baltimore's vibrant alternative theater scene for several years, offering a wide assortment of new or re-imagined work. They have been doing this nomadically, for the most part.
"A lot of the companies have very temporary spaces, with month-to-month leases in some cases," Moritz said. "We can make sure we're not going anywhere."
Seeking a permanent home is a widely shared goal for theater companies. Within the past 18 months, Baltimore has seen that goal realized for Everyman Theatre and also for Single Carrot Theatre, which opened a venue of its own in a renovated tire shop at the far end of North Howard Street, on the upper reaches of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
Annex Theater currently stages productions at the Chicken Box, a reclaimed fast food store on North Avenue. EMP Collective, which offers theater, music and visual art events, uses rented space on West Baltimore Street a few blocks from the proposed redevelopment site. The other groups participating in the Howard Street project can be found in rented church halls and other locations.
The possibility of seeing several companies converge in the neighborhood appeals to Everyman's artistic director, Vincent Lancisi, who is also board president of the Bromo Arts District.
"I've been fixated on the promise of what could happen," Lancisi said, "and the vision these companies have of taking three storefronts on an almost ghost-like block of Howard Street and transforming that into a vibrant theater scene. I really hope that the powers-that-be select their proposal. We have little to lose in giving them a chance, and a lot to be gained."
Colin Tarbert, Baltimore's deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, said the city is hoping to build an environment in the Bromo Arts District in which folks can live, work and be entertained all within a few blocks.
"The city's goal on the west side is to create a vibrant arts community," he said, pointing to developments such as 520 Park that have drawn residents.
New theaters could help bolster the area even more, Tarbert said.
"They could become anchors in the communities," he said. "Everyman has been very successful. The Hippodrome is already there. We have the Arena Players to the north. There's already a thriving theater district within the Bromo area. The more venues you have, the better it is for the community."
By themselves, the companies involved in the Howard Street project would not likely contemplate a $7 million project. They are used to modest annual budgets — $20,000 to $30,000 at Annex, for example; $25,000 to $30,000 at EMP. Other participating groups make do on a great deal less.
To realize their ambition, these organizations have a daunting challenge.