Urban Land Institute offers recommendations for city's west side

Baltimore leaders need to develop a clear vision for what they want to happen with the Social Security Administration's soon-to-be-vacant Metro West office complex and share those plans soon with the federal government.

The developer of the long-stalled "Superblock" project near Lexington Market should come up with a construction plan that complies with previously agreed-upon preservation requirements or be replaced.


Public officials ought to think twice about formally designating downtown's west side an arts and entertainment district because it probably won't generate much new retail activity and could "cannibalize" the fledgling Station North arts district near Penn Station.

Those are a few of the recommendations made by the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based organization that helps cities address issues involving urban design and land development.


Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has made west-side revitalization a priority, asked the ULI earlier this year to send an advisory services panel to study the west side and recommend ways to jump-start development there.

"My hope is this is going to be a map" that shows how the west side can be revived, Rawlings-Blake said.

After touring the 20-square-block district and interviewing stakeholders this week, the panel presented its preliminary findings Friday before more than 100 people, including the mayor. The study cost $120,000, which was paid for with a mix of public and private funds. The panel's final report is expected within eight weeks.

One of its strongest recommendations was that Baltimore's mayor take more of a leadership role in pushing for progress on west-side redevelopment. Panelists said the mayor and the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore should be co-chairs of a task force on revitalization. They also said the area needs a "financial czar" who can identify ways to pay for rebuilding activity.

"No one person has been ... leading the effort," said Glenda Hood, panel chairman and former mayor of Orlando, Fla. "The mayor needs to take the lead."

"This needs a two-hour-a week commitment on your part at least for the first year," panel member Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, told Rawlings-Blake. "It can't be delegated. It needs leadership. It needs to be done every week. People have to be held accountable. It cannot be allowed to slide further."

Other recommendations were that:

•The city capitalize on the strengths of the west side, including cultural attractions such as the Hippodrome Theatre and the vast stock of historic buildings still available for restoration. "No bulldozers [are needed] in this area," said panel member Ranne Warner. "This is not an area that needs urban renewal. It needs regeneration."


•The city do more to promote Lexington Market, possibly by rebranding it "L Market."

•The city create more opportunities for people to live in the area, both buying and renting.

•The University of Maryland, Baltimore and the Baltimore VA Medical Center should be encouraged to grow eastward and northward, into the heart of the west-side renewal area.

•The Baltimore Development Corp. should formulate an aggressive strategy for getting city-owned properties in the area into private hands and not letting them sit dormant. The city should be careful about awarding large assemblages of land to one developer. Instead, it should award many parcels to different developers — the concept of "a thousand flowers blooming," said panel member Betty Massey.

After the meeting, mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said the mayor was "very pleased" with the presentation and looks forward to getting the final report.

"She is very excited about reigniting interest in the west side and moving redevelopment forward with more collaboration among stakeholders," he said.


Property owners and others at the meeting said they were encouraged by what they heard.

"This is a much-needed jolt and show of interest and energy in the west side, much credit to the mayor," said Mark Wasserman, senior vice president of external affairs for the University of Maryland Medical System. "The west side has stalled. It needs to move."

Preservationists such as Tyler Gearhart of Preservation Maryland; Johns Hopkins of Baltimore Heritage; and J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, said they were happy that out-of-towners saw the value of the west side's historic buildings and strongly endorsed a preservation-oriented redevelopment strategy — so much so that they advocated that the city part ways with developers who don't comply.

"What the water is to the Inner Harbor area, historic buildings are to the west side," Little said. "They want us to capitalize on our assets."