Reviving the Parkway and a neighborhood

A hundred years ago, the Parkway Theater at the corner of North Charles Street and North Avenue was a much admired movie palace and gathering spot for Baltimore's glittering upper crust. But the theater's fortunes declined with those of the surrounding neighborhood over the decades that followed, and by the 1970s it had become but a shadow of its former glory surrounded by urban blight and decay. When the state designated the area around Pennsylvania Station an official arts and entertainment district in 2003, the revival of the Parkway was at the top of the to-do list for those who not only wanted to rescue the historic Beaux Arts building but revitalize the neighborhoods around it as well.

That's why this week's announcement of a $5 million gift toward the Parkway's renovation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation represents a major step toward transforming the Station North Arts & Entertainment District into a signature Baltimore destination. Over the last decade, the district has attracted an influx of artsy urban pioneers, sweat-equity homeowners and hip professionals who have supported the new businesses, restaurants and shops that have sprung up in the area. The Niarchos Foundation grant means the project's organizers will have raised nearly 80 percent of the $17 million in pledges needed for the project, which when completed will provide the neighborhood with a powerful magnet for attracting future development.

The renovated and renamed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Film Center will have three screens, 600 seats and a live performance space. Classrooms for film students at the Johns Hopkins University and at Maryland Institute College of Art will be across the street. The refurbished Parkway will offer a second major attraction to the area in addition to the much beloved Charles Theatre just north of Penn Station where generations of moviegoers have enjoyed independent movies, the occasional Hollywood blockbuster and top foreign films from around the world. Baltimore is already becoming an important player in contemporary TV and film production, and the opening of the Stavros center can only burnish the city's reputation as a cultural and artistic destination.

Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz, whose group is coordinating the project, says that Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels was essential in attracting the foundation's support. Andreas C. Dracopoulos, a Niarchos co-president, is a Hopkins trustee, and the school has a stake in the project's success because it is located within the university's $10 million Homewood Community Partners Initiative, which aims to revitalize 10 neighborhoods around its campus on North Charles Street. Mr. Daniels, in his former role as provost at the University of Pennsylvania, was known for his efforts to revitalize neighborhoods surrounding that Philadelphia campus, and his involvement in this project is one of the most prominent examples yet of his desire to continue that focus here.

Hopkins' interest in Station North represents a powerful compliment to efforts undertaken by MICA and the University of Baltimore to shore up fragile surrounding neighborhoods and strengthen ties with local residents in order to create a safer, more welcoming campus environment for students, staff and visitors. The Station North arts district lies in an area where all three schools' spheres of interest converge and reinforce each other, with Hopkins' influence pushing southward along North Charles and St. Paul streets and MICA and UB's extending north from Mount Royal Avenue.

Coupled with a revival of commercial residential development in the area, new proposals to renovate Penn Station with shops, restaurants and other attractions, and efforts by nonprofit groups to build dozens of rent-controlled artist's residences and affordable town houses along Greenmount Avenue on the district's eastern border, it's not hard to imagine dramatic changes coming soon to a once neglected part of the city. The Niarchos Foundation gift just brought that future a step closer.

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