For those who spend any amount of time driving through downtown Baltimore or neighborhoods like Mount Vernon and Mid-Town-Belvedere, the thought of its streets largely removed of cars must seem strange.
Yet that’s exactly what visitors and residents saw throughout a nearly 1.3-mile stretch of North Charles Street, between Saratoga Street and North Avenue, on Saturday. But instead of construction or car accidents, the street was shut down for outdoor retail and pedestrian traffic.
The occasion was the Charles Street Promenade, an effort by several neighborhood booster organizations like the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Central Baltimore Partnership, Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and others. The plan had a number of different goals, but among them was to encourage pedestrian activity and safe shopping along this prominent commercial corridor.
“We wanted to show the possibility of suspending auto traffic on this important street just for one day,” said Michael Evitts, the senior vice president of communications and brand strategy for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
The scene on Saturday afternoon showed the relative success of this venture. Restaurants took advantage of the sidewalks for outdoor dining, which was near capacity at The Brewer’s Art and Marie Louise Bistro. Shops like Bella Bridesmaids, which is normally open by appointment only, got to try outdoor retail for passersby who might not otherwise have been out or looking for their accessories and samples.
“We don’t rely quite as much on foot traffic, so this was such a neat opportunity to engage with folks outside, see more of our neighbors,” said Whitney Newland, owner of Bella Bridesmaids.
“I live right around the corner, so this is really cool, to see people walking up and down the street with their coffees and their children, just having a good time enjoying their Saturday and doing a little shopping, as well," added Jahmeece Chase, an associate at the store.
For other area residents, the event provided a slight inconvenience: difficulty finding parking.
“A lot more people who are down here parked in the free spots, and there already aren’t a lot of free spots around here to begin with,” said Trevon Ball, who was dining at The Chicken or the Egg. Still, he said, that didn’t outweigh the positives of being able to walk around with more space than the sidewalks alone typically give.
The promenade appealed enough to Liz and Eric Norton that they brought their children Lucy, 8, and Cole, 4, from their Mount Washington home in Northwest Baltimore to partake in the good weather and open streets.
“It was just nice to come down and walk around and know that it would be safe, and we also love to support anything that’s a car-free activity,” Liz Norton said.
“I hope there’s more of these in more places, to make more space for people,” added Eric Norton.
Evitts said that any future events like this are being taken “one day at a time as public heath dictates,” given the possibility of more restrictions. That said, he said the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and other groups are discussing a possible “holiday stroll” in the area.
For area businesses and organizations, the promenade also brought important foot traffic and commercial activity at a time when the coronavirus pandemic and associated closures have adversely affected their bottom line. Laurel Miller, director of visitor services at The Walters Art Museum, said that there was a noticeable increase in people stopping by as compared to prior weeks.
“It’s been really nice and a change of pace to see people just out and about, walking around on a beautiful day and not just driving by and trying to find parking, but finding a new way to enjoy themselves during the day,” Miller said.
Victoria Schassler of Spirits of Mt. Vernon, a wine and spirits store next to Marie Louise Bistro, also noticed increased business since customers could sit outside with a bit more ease and enjoy glasses of wine.
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“2020 has been a year that will go down in records as the greatest disturbance to our businesses ... this is completely out of necessity, so it’s a pleasure to have this street closure today,” she said. “I’m seeing folks that I haven’t seen before, as well as local residents.”