With the growing demand for locally produced food and with area farmers' markets gaining popularity, now is a perfect time to evaluate Baltimore's city-owned markets — in particular, Lexington Market, the grandfather of them all.

Lexington Market is the oldest continually operating market in the country. It was created in 1782 on land donated by Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard. The first merchants came by wagon from as far away as Towson to sell goods in what was, at that time, just an open field. The first building went up in 1803, and the market has anchored Downtown's west side ever since.

Today, the market is at the heart of a neighborhood in transition. It sits at a nexus of transit points, making it accessible to Baltimoreans who don't have healthy food options in their neighborhoods. The University System of Maryland, one of the region's largest employers, brings many people and substantial investment and energy to the west side. The area has a tremendous number of historic or architecturally significant buildings. The Hippodrome, Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, and the future home of Everyman Theatre form the core of a dynamic arts scene that includes independent galleries and performance spaces. And, according to the 2010 census, downtown's west side and city center were the fastest-growing residential neighborhoods in Baltimore over the past 10 years, outpacing even the waterfront.

There is no doubt that enormous improvements have been made to Lexington Market over the years. It is well managed, and its events are a focal point of the neighborhood. Despite these strengths, the market needs our attention if the west side is to reach its full potential. The main building is poorly ventilated and lacks sufficient natural light. Its exterior is closed off, with no outdoor merchants or gathering space. There is little landscaping to soften the concrete jungle. And nearby streets have illegal vendors and safety issues that deter patrons.

Across the country, historic markets have been revitalized into dynamic public spaces. That's why Lexington Market is a focus area in Downtown Partnership's recently released Open Space Plan. Our plan envisions a world-class district with Lexington Market as an important anchor. Specifically, our plan returns the market to its roots by opening it up to the street, replacing the West Building with a park and food kiosks, and reworking the public spaces to make them more inviting to shoppers and pedestrians. To move this initiative forward, we have called for a combined effort between the police department and the substance abuse outreach community to address the sale of illegal drugs around the market, and the Partnership is using its own funds to make this happen.

These changes, along with operational improvements, will attract more customers, improve business for the existing merchants, and better serve the thousands of people who already shop at Lexington Market each week. And they are not happening in a vacuum.

At the invitation of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Urban Land Institute recently took an extensive look at the challenges and opportunities in this part of downtown and issued an advisory report to steer public and private revitalization efforts. The recommendations are being put into play by a new Westside Task Force, created by the mayor, that she chairs jointly with Dr. Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. This task force is charged with moving projects forward, whether small, short-term improvements or a major undertaking such as the Lexington Square project. Improving Lexington Market is its top priority.

There is a lot to gain from an improved Lexington Market. It is a direct link to Baltimore's past and its best traditions; it is an invaluable resource for residents and employees from across the city; and it reflects the overall health of downtown's important west side. If we give it the necessary attention, it can benefit from the growing popularity of public markets and anchor west side improvements for generations to come.

Kirby Fowler is president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. His email is kfowler@dpob.org.