As co-founder and director of the annual Charm City Fringe Festival, Zachary Michel goes in search of neighborhood performance locations for his theater companies.
He feels Baltimore's Howard Street corridor offers midsize spaces aplenty. As we walked recently along the street from Saratoga north to Centre, he spoke of the future of what could be called The West Side, or the Bromo Arts District — or perhaps just Howard Street.
"We would love to have a space of our own here," Michel said. "Just look at the infrastructure, the light rail line and the location. It's astounding that people haven't got wind of the potential of the place."
In its fifth year, Charm City Fringe Festival will be held in November at venues in Hampden and Station North.
Michel, 29, a Bel Air-born University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate who studied geographical and environmental science, understands the difficultly of bringing people downtown but embraces it.
"Bringing people into the city, in general, is a challenge," he said as we passed vacant shop fronts along Howard and paused to watch a former drug store and 19th-century hotel being demolished adjacent to the vacant Mayfair theater.
Michel lives in Hampden and sees the draw of the Howard Street-Bromo Arts area because it already has two flourishing theaters: Everyman and the Hippodrome.
In addition, the Spotlighters theater company is exploring a move to the old Read's drugstore chain at Howard and Lexington streets. And arts advocate-developer Ted Rouse has envisioned a small theater complex at the old Schellhase Restaurant property along a stretch of Howard, which a recent Baltimore Sun article called "bleak."
"A friend of mine said that Howard Street is decades away from being what it used to be, but I'm not sure I agree," Michel said. "I think it's going to change pretty quickly and take off."
His optimistic judgment is that this part of Baltimore, which experienced a rapid decline in the 1990s as old department stores closed, seems poised for rebirth.
"The difference between a derelict block of buildings and a thriving community is someone taking the initiative to change it," he said.
There are promising signs of that initiative. Construction on a new $30 million apartment house has just begun on a long-vacant lot at Howard and Franklin streets and Park Avenue.
Marketed as 500 Park Avenue, the development is partially owned by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and is being built by The Time Group — the same firm that recently renovated a former Hochschild Kohn department store warehouse as apartments, a food market and boutique coffee business.
"It's certainly a more positive component to the neighborhood than a surface parking lot," said Dominic Wiker, The Time Group's development director. "This apartment building we are building will extend the Mount Vernon neighborhood by another half block."
The Howard Street neighborhood is being reconstructed block by block. Over the past year, a 70-unit affordable housing apartment structure has risen, built by Enterprise Homes. Called Mulberry Park Apartments, the new mid-rise faces the old Martick's restaurant and bar, and adjoins the much-recalled and long-closed Abe Sherman book and magazine shop.
The apartment is tailored to be a home for those on a budget and with a philosophy that the area can appeal to all.
"Our impression is that there are people working downtown who serve the rest of the community [and] who can't afford the rents there," said Chickie Grayson, president of Enterprise Homes.
The neighborhood and its promise seems to be intriguing those who can look past the worn-out roofs and plywood nailed across vacant properties.
"Baltimore today reminds me of the battleground days of Brooklyn when I was growing up," said Allison Robicelli, co-owner of a Brooklyn, N.Y., bakery who hopes to relocate to Howard and Franklin streets.
"Baltimore has a great can-do spirit," she said. "It's a flawed city, but there is beauty in flaws."