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Housing up, jobs down in Downtown Baltimore, new report shows

Business and civic leaders attend a breakfast during the release of annual State of Downtown Baltimore report. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

Downtown's growth eased somewhat last year, with the number of residents and jobs dipping slightly, even as more apartments became available, according to the latest annual report from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Partnership officials used the State of Downtown presentation Thursday morning at the Hyatt Regency to implore business and civic leaders to talk up the benefits of living, working and visiting downtown — and dispel concerns over crime.

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"Please challenge them," said Kirby Fowler, the organization's long-time president, of naysayers.

As pictures of bustling sidewalks and new restaurants and apartment buildings flashing around him, he called downtown vibrant.

"You do not want to be in an office park," Fowler said, even if there is free parking and less chance of witnessing the signs of poverty, addiction and homelessness.

He pointed to many positive signs in the last year in the downtown area that provides more than a third of the jobs and just under a third of the city's businesses despite being a geographic sliver of the city. The partnership defines downtown as those areas within a mile of the intersection of Pratt and Light streets — an area stretching south to Federal Hill, west to Pigtown, north to Mount Vernon and east to Harbor Point.

Housing continues to be the brightest spot for the area, with several new apartment buildings built or converted in 2017, including Stadium Square, 2 Hopkins Plaza, The Appraisers' Building, Banner Hill, 300 St. Paul and 500 Park. Together, they added 1,400 housing units to downtown.

Occupancy at the year's end was 93 percent in buildings open at least a year, up from just over 91 percent the year before. Hundreds of condos and townhouses also were sold.

A housing demand study, released last year by the partnership, found that downtown could support 7,000 new units over the next five years.

Yet the number of residents slipped to 42,626 in 2017, 235 fewer than the year before, according to the report. That's within the margin of error for the data sourced from Claritas, according to the partnership.

Officials noted that some restaurants had closed in the past year, but cited nine restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops had opened.

Jobs dipped 2 percent to just over 119,000 downtown, as some business have moved to non-traditional parts of the city or the suburbs. But the report cited multiple large new leases for space, including those for Morgan Stanley, M&T Bank, Johns Hopkins Center for Communications, Vitreon and a half-dozen others.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh told the gathering city leaders will continue to push for lower taxes to attract residents and businesses and for an investment fund to seed new neighborhood and business projects.

At the meeting, partnership officials also announced a plan to add a lane to Pratt Street in front of the Gallery at Harborplace in the Inner Harbor to open up what has been a bottleneck on the main east-west thoroughfare.

The partnership also said it will install 15 interactive sidewalk kiosks around downtown to offer visitors and locals information on events, transportation, places to shop or eat, and city services.

The first of the touch-screen kiosks, resembling eight-foot-tall smart phones, will be installed along Pratt Street from the Inner Harbor to Camden Yards.

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The partnership has contracted with IKE Smart City for the machines. Created by Ohio-based Orange Barrel Media, IKE stands for "interactive kiosk experience" and was first used in Denver. Several other cities now use the kiosks.

The company says the service is paid for with advertising and sponsorship only seen on the machines when they're not being used. The Downtown Partnership will get a portion of the revenue to cover the cost of installing, operating and maintaining the machines.

"Even in a world of smart phones, cities around the world recognize that physical wayfinding and pedestrian assistance are important and relevant," Fowler said. "IKE is a fun and innovative way for residents and visitors alike to make the most of our city."

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