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A rebuild of Baltimore’s Lexington Market is set to begin — too late for some vendors, but others are hopeful

Lynette Tarrant, owner of Love, Hope and Leather, is looking forward to the changes coming to the historic Lexington Market.

Work is poised to begin as soon as January on the revitalization of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, but that’s a little too late for the Mary Mervis Delicatessen. The stall closed the day before Thanksgiving, a victim of declining traffic and sales.

Elliott Bodnar, owner of the deli, served up the last of his shrimp salad and corned beef sandwiches and laid off his last three employees. He’d hoped the deli, a staple of the West Side market for more than a century, would be part of Lexington’s rebirth. Instead, the business, which began when a widow named Mary Mervis set up a mayonnaise stall in 1913, came to an end.

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After years of planning, the city is expected to start razing a portion of one of the country’s oldest public markets as early as next month to make way for a new warehouse-style building more in tune with the desires of modern consumers. Merchants will move from the 1980s-era Arcade into the main East Market by mid-January, clearing the way for the Arcade’s demolition and construction of a light-filled, modern market shed.

Some merchants eagerly await the new building. Not Bodnar.

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He said he lost customers and sales in the unrest after Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered while in police custody in 2015. The trend worsened this year after changes in federal rules meant he lost eligibility to accept the food stamps used by many regular customers.

More recently, he said he lost the sense of security he’d always had inside the market, even as crime worsened in the neighborhood around it. One day last month, several people chased one another into the market and a fight erupted in Bodnar’s stall.

“It’s gotten to a point I can’t do it anymore. I’m fed up,” said Bodnar, 70, torn about abandoning loyal customers he’s befriended. “I’m too old for the stress.”

The developers behind the project say they hope to bring about change for the better in the market and surrounding neighborhood while preserving the best parts of the historic institution.

“Lexington Market is for the entire city of Baltimore,” said Thibault Manekin, a partner with Seawall Development, which built Remington food hall R. House and was hired by the city last year. “It should unite us and provide a place for all of us to go."

Seawall, which took on the project in October 2018, envisions a market with a diverse selection of prepared and fresh foods in a building that replicates the market’s look in 1910. The developers are scheduled to close on a $40 million financing package this month.

By mid-January, all tenants in the Arcade will move to empty stalls in the older, maze-like East Market. The Arcade will be razed. A new South Market will be built on an adjacent parking lot, filling the block between Paca and Eutaw streets and opening onto an outdoor plaza where the Arcade stands now. The East Market will remain open until the new structure opens by the end of 2021, then will be redeveloped in a later phase.

Young Lee, who has owned Park’s Hamburgers with her husband for 31 years, is preparing to move from the Arcade to the East Market.

Business is not what it once was, Lee said. Stalls have closed and the lunch crowds thinned, especially as office workers left. In 2014, the Social Security Administration moved 1,600 workers out of two blocks of offices near the market.

"Very slow, this market, it’s very slow,” Lee said.

The couple considered moving to another city public market but just liked Lexington better. They hope to hold on in temporary space, then apply to join the new market. Then they could retire eventually without having to be uprooted again.

“We want to stay here in this market,” Lee said.

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Joshua Cho still is considering what it would take for him to stay in a market where he has run Harbor Fish for 31 years.

“I’d love to, but it depends,” Cho said. “Is it worth it or not?”

He would need to replace or move expensive commercial equipment needed to sell fresh seafood, such as an ice machine and refrigerated storage. He’d need to negotiate a new lease. And he would count on the new space to bring back the business that has fallen off by about half, even among tourists.

Manekin said he expects “an inclusive, far-reaching recruitment and selection process that will honor those vendors that have been in the market a long time and create opportunities” for new ones. “It’s really, really important to keep some of the long-standing businesses."

The popular Faidley’s Seafood, in the market since 1886 and known for its family crabcake recipe, is expected to stay on as an anchor, Manekin said. Faidley’s owner Bill Devine confirmed that.

The plans represent the latest version of a market that has reinvented itself repeatedly since its beginnings on the site in 1782. A long shedlike building in the early 20th century featured outdoor, awning-covered stalls stacked with fruits and vegetables. After that building was gutted by fire in 1949, it was replaced by the East Market in 1951.

But shopper traffic declined as modern supermarkets emerged, the suburbs grew and retailers left the Howard Street department store district by the late 1970s. The 1980s brought construction of the Arcade, a food-hall-style addition with an upper mezzanine, central seating area and stage. In recent years, crime and drug dealing outside the market’s doors pushed more customers and vendors away. Currently, about 50 vendors remain.

Even as plans for redevelopment began to emerge and community members took part in developer-led planning sessions, some tenants closed up. A pizzeria, a deli, a seafood and sushi stand, and other stalls in the Arcade have emptied.

“Tenants left voluntarily once they reconciled that customer interest had declined beyond a point of sustaining their business,” said Robert E. Thomas, executive director of Baltimore Public Markets Corp.

Manekin acknowledged that "people have stopped going to Lexington Market the way they once had.”

The redevelopment aims to reverse that trend, focusing not only on the physical building but also the environment outside the market in a city beset by violence.

The project can serve as a strong anchor for the West Side, attracting new investment and continuing the momentum of other nearby redevelopment, said Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes Lexington Market. Apartments and a hotel are planned for the former Drovers & Mechanics National Bank at Fayette and North Eutaw streets, and developers have offered new proposals for the failed Superblock, downtown’s former shopping district where renewal has stalled for decades.

“We’re already seeing signs of additional investment on downtown’s West Side,” Costello said. “You’re going to start to see holes in that area start to fill in, and more foot traffic will ultimately lead to more people spending money."

Others are skeptical. Too many proposals to spur reinvestment on the West Side never materialized or failed to have the hoped-for effect, said Stephen J.K. Walters, chief economist for the Maryland Public Policy Institute. Walters, who proposed remedies for urban decline in his book “Boom Towns,” argues that high city tax rates repel investment, even in areas near big projects, such as the market, that get tax relief and grants. (The $40 million project is being financed through debt and federal tax credits as well as with a $7.25 million city grant.)

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“I’m not optimistic about this project producing a turnaround,” Walters said. “If it doesn’t make sense to invest, proximity to a subsidized project doesn’t change that fundamental and unfortunate fact."

The city’s public safety problems further hurt demand, he said.

Seawall said its community-based work groups are tackling safety issues, with input from police from the city and the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore. That committee is just one of several; another made up of residents, business owners and patrons will select vendors. They will review applications and score them based on a set of criteria, then narrow down applicants.

About a third of the market’s tenants will sell prepared foods with the rest offering a mix of produce, meats, vegetables, fish, fruit and specialty items — what Manekin called a “healthy mix, so it’s not just a food hall but a real public market." He sees the market offering not just space for 50 to 60 vendors, but support from experts to help them succeed.

Plans have been applauded by merchants such as Lynette Tarrant, who sells leather earrings and other jewelry, mostly on weekends in temporary space, and belongs to the vendor selection committee. Tarrant used to run a permanent kiosk but closed it because of frustrations over maintenance at the aging building. But she wants to open a permanent stand in the new market, and is urging the city to sponsor events as it once did, teaching schoolchildren artisan crafts, for instance.

Despite the market’s troubles, she said, “people still come here. My mother’s in her 80s now, and she still comes here, and she shops and gets her fish and her vegetables.”

So does Cassandra Dismal, a warehouse worker for Under Armour, who eats lunch at the market every day. She likes the selection, from cheesesteak pitas and Chinese food to offerings at the Dancing Potato. Sometimes she buys sausages to cook at home. During a recent stop for lunch, Dismal was relieved to learn the market is not going away.

“I really enjoy coming down here," Dismal said. “I love this market."

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