Lexington Market could be rebuilt and host a weekly farmers' market if the city follows through on new recommendations for an institution dogged by a reputation for safety problems and lack of cleanliness.
A report commissioned by the city calls for an estimated $26.7 million overhaul of the west-side food market, consolidating vendors into a newly rebuilt structure with windows and better interior design. The proposal also recommends shifting the market's focus toward fresh foods and specialty shops, while cutting the number of prepared food stalls, currently more than half of the 97 merchants.
The changes are designed to entice new customers to the struggling market, a west-side institution that traces its roots to 1782 but has seen visitors and sales dwindle in recent years amid concerns about crime in the area.
The bluntly worded report said customers, area institutions and the public cite the prevalence of drug activity and loitering as issues that make going to the market "uncomfortable and unpleasant." The report also identified "smells" as problem.
"For Lexington Market to be successful, it must become a welcoming place where everyone feels safe and where miscreant behavior is not tolerated," said the 333-page report developed by Market Ventures Inc.
There is no firm timeline for when any changes might be implemented, nor has any money been set aside. But Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is committed to making improvements, said Kaliope Parthemos, the mayor's chief of staff.
"I would hope that as we move forward … it would be seen as a destination and be seen a place where people could go to and get the things they're looking for, and have a pleasant experience inside and out of the market," Parthemos said.
The market has struggled for years as businesses and residents left the area. The number of annual visitors to Lexington Market has dropped to about 2.2 million from 2.8 million in 2007, according to an estimate last year by the market.
The consulting firm said a revived market could generate $32.4 million in annual sales — roughly double the current estimate of $17.6 million. It is also critical to broader efforts to revitalize the city's west side.
"You see the encroaching redevelopment happening all around it, which is very exciting," said Ted Spitzer, president of Maine-based Market Ventures. "The market will be an impediment to that redevelopment if something is not done."
Electrical and other basic mechanical systems in the current primary facilities, which date to the 1950s, are out of date, the report found. The main building lacks basic fire safety measures, such as modern smoke detectors and well-functioning sprinkler systems, it found.
"It can't just go on the way it's been," Spitzer said."The building is really tired, and it hasn't had a major capital investment for decades."
The report calls for gutting the primary building at 400 W. Lexington Street, adding windows, leveling the floor, building a new, more clearly organized interior, and consolidating vendors there from the market's other outposts. An alternative scenario would relocate the market to a rebuilt, smaller annex on the west side of Lexington Street, allowing for redevelopment of the other block.
A new "demonstration kitchen" could host events and cooking classes, while other, smaller changes, such as installing ATMs, encouraging more vendors to accept credit cards and adding evening and Sunday hours could also help boost revenue.
The Lexington Market board, which oversees the market and which reviewed the report Thursday, will spend the next several months mulling its findings, said Kirby Fowler, board chair for the group and also president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
"The mayor knows that it's going to take a significant capital investment to move forward, and she's waiting for us to come back with a recommendation and a plan," said Parthemos, who sits on the market's board and added that she does not expect the city to fund the entire project.
Some are skeptical that anything will happen after years of talk and declining business.
"They don't have any money," said Billy Bae, who runs a produce stand with his sister in the western section of the market.
The market retains a loyal clientele, many of whom started shopping there more than 20 years ago.
But concerns about cleanliness, safety and drug problems, among others identified by the report, mean it has failed to capture the business of new residents and staff from the University of Maryland Baltimore, among other nearby institutions.
In 2013, police made roughly 240 arrests at or next to the market, including 170 that were drug-related.
Mike Houvardas, who owns the Berger cookies retail bakery stall, opened in 1974, said he's not sure the changes will have the desired effect.
When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, officials convinced vendors to stay open until 8 p.m., guaranteeing that baseball fans would come to eat before catching a game. But that didn't last long, he said — the crowds didn't come.
Though he would welcome renovations, he doesn't expect much change without something being done to address the panhandling and drug dealing.
Officials said they are aware of the safety concerns related to the market. But investing in the market can help lift its environment, Fowler said.
"I believe that great design can lead to a better environment both inside and outside," he said. "I think with the proper renovation, the neighborhood will naturally improve."
More varied offerings are also critical, especially as interest grows in healthy, locally sourced food, said Klaus Philipsen, a regular market patron whose architecture firm is located nearby and who sits on a project area committee for the Baltimore Development Corp.
"The stars are all perfectly aligned to capitalize on [those trends] but for that, they would have to freshen up architecturally, in its surroundings and in the offerings," he said. "I'm not saying it needs to be yuppified, but it should cater to a more diverse population. … You can't have seven vendors that all offer thickly frosted cake."
Some change has started already. Last year, two people were hired to focus on leasing and business development at Lexington Market.
The report also recommended improving operations by hiring a staff member fluent in Korean, the language spoken by many of the vendors, and requiring merchants to report sales to the market as part of the leases.
The consolidation of operations in a single building, with seats scattered among the merchants rather than a central food court, would help bring down costs, allowing the market to reduce its 51-person staff by roughly half.
Most of the cuts would come from security and housekeeping staff, areas in which Lexington Market employs an outsize number of people compared to other public markets, according to the report. The market also has higher utility costs, due to old systems and operations being spread among some four properties.
The market, which makes most its money from renting to vendors, would lose money if it weren't for the infusion of revenue from the Lexington Market garage. But its income has fallen the past two years.
Investing in the market should help lift the area, as it has in other cities, said Spitzer, citing the example of Eastern Market in Washington. The report also recommended upgrading the roads and other landscaping around the area.
Alex Likowski, spokesman for the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said the university supports the plans.
"We are doing all we can as partners with the city to help improve the environment in and outside of the Market," he said in a statement. "Revitalizing the market will certainly bolster our efforts to encourage UMB's faculty, staff, students, and visitors to visit Lexington Market."
Lexington Market remains an emotional fixture for the wider community, an asset the report said will work to the market's advantage.
"It's original," said James Brown Jr., who stopped at the market Thursday for a cheesesteak on his way to work at an Under Armour warehouse. "I've been coming here since I was little."
It also still draws tourists. Chris Choi, an urban planner in Chicago, arrived in Baltimore Thursday for a smart-growth conference and went straight to Lexington Market for a crab cake.
The meal at Faidley's Seafood satisfied, but the market itself left something wanting.
"I was a little bit disappointed," said Choi, who said he had expected to find unique and locally inspired vendors like those that make public markets in other cities such attractions for residents and tourists alike. "If there were more food stalls like, things that were unique to Baltimore, I think it would draw in more visitors and more locals. …
"There could be a really big draw here," he added. "The bones are there,"