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Checking up on Marketplace at Fells Point

I had to look twice at two facing commercial blocks along South Broadway. After two years of hard work, what is called the Marketplace at Fells Point is ready for occupancy. So ready, more than half of its apartments have tenants. If you hadn't known what it looked like 18 months ago, you would not detect the newness of what you are observing.

Some intricate construction surgery happened here in one of the oldest parts of Baltimore — Broadway, between Fleet and Aliceanna streets. Old shop fronts were taken apart, then what remained was shored up with steel framing. The cranes and bulldozers moved in to dig holes for an underground parking garage and accommodate 159 apartments. All this was accomplished within a revered historic preservation district.

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I traveled Regester Street, a confined thoroughfare behind the project. As part of the preservation agreement, Regester's old houses had to stay. Keeping these structures, or parts of them, likely caused construction headaches. But if you love Fells Point, you are amazed by its miniature scale. When you walk along Lancaster and Shakespeare streets, you experience Baltimore in 1800. I often say: If you want to know Baltimore, walk its alleys and back streets.

One of the best aspects of the Marketplace project is the lack of pretense. It's not over-restored. It looks pretty much the way Baltimore's older neighborhoods have evolved in the past three decades.

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The project uses the name Marketplace because it faces the old Broadway Market, a Baltimore landmark that's suffered fire and economic reverses but still hangs in there. The Marketplace developers have plans for this, too. Stay tuned.

After I'd checked out the Marketplace, I moved on to Recreation Pier, one of the few remaining structures that has not undergone refurbishment since Fells Point started being called by that name again about 1968. Previously, the area had been known, with classic Baltimore understatement, as the "foot of Broadway" without even a capital F on "foot." The pier is the big toe.

It didn't get much attention, but late last year the state of Maryland announced it was awarding $3 million in historic preservation tax credits to the pier building, which Under Armour's Kevin Plank is going to turn into a hotel at a total construction cost of $39.8 million.

Sounds like a tall order, but Fells Point has an amazing urban presence and, in terms of city maritime character, it is a dazzling winner. The old pier was once the point of arrival and debarkation for the municipal ferry service to Locust Point, a commuter line that the water taxi now duplicates. The Recreation Pier development project has befuddled prospective developers for years. With the state assistance and Plank's enthusiasm for Baltimore, this time may be the golden charm. Like the Marketplace, this site has its issues. It does not sit on fast land; it is a pier with water underfoot.

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The pier's head house was designed by Theodore Wells Pietsch, a Chicago architect who came to Baltimore after the 1904 fire to help rebuild the city. Its main auditorium, called a ballroom when built, has soaring arched windows around a vast interior chamber. Recreation Pier opened in 1914 and, in 1930, a few months after Pietsch's suicide, his church of SS. Philip and James opened at 2801 N. Charles St.

Sit in one of its pews and take a look at the windows. He placed the same window design in both very grand structures, though the church has stained-glass windows while the pier's are clear.

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