'Just gets better' on Charles

Joe Ptak (left), Cameron and Donna Northouse opened the Dark Sky Cafe and Clayton Fine Books on Charles Street that has attracted 21 new businesses and other developments since 2002.
Charles Street, a pivotal centerpiece in efforts to revitalize Baltimore's urban core, is looking more and more successful these days.

Five newly opened businesses on the street are offering customers everything from sushi to sandalwood and rare books.

"We're getting a good balance of retail and restaurants," said Rebecca Gagalis, executive director of Charles Street Development Corp. "All have said they're aware of the progress on Charles Street and that played a role in their decision. I think we're showing good results and good growth."

A total of 21 new businesses have opened since 2002, creating 600 jobs, she said. During that time, $55 million in private funds has been invested in major mixed-use developments, including retail.

A boulevard with a grand past, Charles Street between Federal Hill and North Avenue and its immediate vicinity is home to 96 dining and entertainment establishments and 62 retail shops, Gagalis said.

"There's been a major investment in the buildout of the new tenant space," she said. "I think people more easily spend money when they see that other people are spending money."

The occupancy rate has risen from 79 percent to 83 percent over the past three years, she said.

"We've seen a dramatic reduction in the vacancy rate on first-floor retail over the last several years," said Henry G. Hagen, chairman of Charles Street Development. "And the quality of what's been opening has just been magnificent."

It requires a degree of creativity to reformat many of the buildings whose footprints do not immediately lend themselves to current retail standards, according to Gagalis.

But those buildings also offer a location and features that cannot be matched elsewhere in the city, according to one developer and business owner.

"In Mount Vernon and Charles Street, we have found quality of architecture and culture that are hard to find elsewhere in the city," said Chris Regan, a principal in Tower Hill Development and minority owner in a new restaurant, Copra, at 313 N. Charles St.

Comfort food

The 4,500-square-foot restaurant, on two levels, opened late last month, featuring American comfort foods such as meat loaf, shepherd's pie and macaroni and cheese, and soon will offer oven-baked pizza.

The building, which will include two large, luxury apartments, cost about $1 million to renovate, Regan said.

Nearby, at 317 N. Charles St., Clayton Fine Books opened last month with an inventory valued at about $2 million.

The bookstore features hard-to-find books ranging in price from $10 to $10,000. Its collection includes a signed copy of Joseph Heller's classic Catch-22 that the author presented to his agent, and autographed books by playwright Arthur Miller, novelist Sinclair Lewis and Baltimore native H.L. Mencken.

"We've looked all over the area at where a bookstore could go," said Cameron Northouse, who operates the store with his wife, Donna - both with doctorates in English literature. "It just seemed like the perfect place when it's coupled with a coffee shop."

The 5,000-square-foot store includes the Dark Sky Cafe, owned and managed by another partner, Joe Ptak. Renovations to the 1905 building cost about $75,000, Northouse said.

After a yearlong search, the partners eventually settled on the 300 and 400 blocks of N. Charles St.

"It looked like the place that was going to be the most vital, the quickest," Northouse said. "It's taken off faster than any one of us thought it would."

At 519 N. Charles St., G. Alan Moyers recently opened Renewing Touch, a shop that features aroma and massage therapy and includes retail space for incense, pottery, Persian rugs, sweetgrass, sandalwood and a variety of spiritual items.

'More holistic'

The Charles Street location afforded them a walk-in clientele from nearby residents and businesses alike, he said. That renovation project cost less than $10,000, Moyers said.

"It facilitates what we're interested in doing, which is bringing a little more holistic atmosphere to the community," said Moyers, co-owner. "The revitalization was promising to us."

Phillip Quick opened XS, a coffee, sushi and cocktail bar, in mid-January, next door to two other restaurants he owns - Jay's and Viccino's.

The new restaurant takes up all four levels of the brownstone at 1307 N. Charles St.

"We've been successful at this location," he said. "I've seen an incredible renaissance of Charles Street. It just gets better and better all the time. This year in particular, I've seen more foot traffic in this block than in any other year."

Up the street, Sofi's Crepes recently opened at 1723 N. Charles St. - the brainchild of a disillusioned Baltimore stockbroker.

After 16 years in the financial industry, Ann Costlow, formerly with UBS Paine Webber, decided it was time to make a radical change. She took a leave for a summer, became a cook on the Pride of Baltimore II and loved it.

Her experience prompted her to spend about $45,000 to renovate 150 square feet of space - once the coffee kitchen and part of a stairwell at the Everyman Theater, and another $25,000 on kitchen equipment.

'The perfect food'

"We sort of hit the ground running," said Costlow, who estimates she's sold about 5,000 crepes since opening March 18. "The film festival put us on the map. That was the perfect food for that event. Theater people are the people who understand and love crepes. The whole block is getting that European flair."

Already, she is contemplating an expansion that could double her space by fall.

Costlow's original idea was to locate her crepe shop near Belvedere Square, but those plans fell through. She decided on Charles while driving down the street one day.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me that I ended up here," she said.