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Baltimore’s Howard Street sees a sluggish but steady return from decay

The 400 block of Howard Street has been a vacant, blighted zone for decades. A development underway to change all that is the first ray of hope in the Howard Street corridor for years.
The 400 block of Howard Street has been a vacant, blighted zone for decades. A development underway to change all that is the first ray of hope in the Howard Street corridor for years. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

A building on downtown Baltimore’s Howard Street has a story to tell. An old auction house at 407 N. Howard became a vacant structure decades ago as the fortunes of the once-thriving shopping destination fell as deep as the unseen railroad tunnel that lies beneath the street.

The building and the street where it sits became so bleak that the creators of “The Wire” used its large second-floor window and dusty interior for a particularly startling assassination scene.

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A partial renovation of the block was announced two years ago — but skeptics sat back and wondered if it would happen. There have been numerous attempts to fix the old shopping neighborhood (now technically the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District), but there’s not much evidence of a glamorous revival. For now.

The building at 407 N. Howard is now nicely restored and with its neighboring structures has re-emerged as 41 apartments. Greg Kostrikin, the developer in the Poverni Sheikh group, said that his Howard Row project is well leased and the rents are $1,000 to $1,400 a month for the apartments.

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Kostrikin said that roomy old buildings have been converted into residential units, but the old shop fronts are being preserved. He is participating in a plan to give free rent and move-in help to two new retail uses, Cuples Tea House, featuring custom blended teas, and an ice cream store, Cajou, a part of the Baltimore Creatives Acceleration Network that makes dairy-free ice cream in small batches.

One of the 400 block of Howard’s catalysts is Le Mondo, a bar and arts venue in the old Howard Union Co. store that developer Ted Rouse proposed and guided through to a successful opening. It’s closed now due to the quarantine, but a sign in its window, dated March 13, listed a full spring schedule of events. A block away, in the 400 block of Eutaw Street, the plans of Moseley Architects and their client developers are being realized as an ambitious project of artists’ space and affordable housing is rising from the ground.

Howard Street is an avenue of memories for those who experienced it decades ago. This block housed Samuel Pattison Rae’s auction house, once the place to pick antiques and used furniture at a fair price. It wasn’t a stylish place. The bidders looked as if they might have lived upstairs, and the treasures knocked down had often seen better days.

Rae, the auctioneer and the moving force behind the operation, a large man who wore a Stetson hat, was a venerable Baltimore downtown character who was a devotee of the Marconi restaurant around the corner on West Saratoga Street.

The adjoining properties also have been refurbished as part of Howard Row. These include an old Western Auto store, and two furniture businesses, one belonging to Robinson brothers (one of the siblings had a law practice in the building) and another to Abe Flashman.

Shoppers went to this block to outfit their homes. The old Lears furniture and bedding firm was here, as well as a popular White Coffee Pot restaurant. The big department stores farther south on Howard were better known for clothing and did not offer much of a selection of furniture.

Howard Street is in a slow-motion transition, but it is rebuilding. Other scattered properties were being repaired this week, and while there are still numerous vacant places with broken windows and sagging roofs, there seems to be a positive pulse.

Jim French, the co-developer of the Four Ten Lofts affordable housing development, is partnering with Episcopal Housing Services to fill a vacant lot at Eutaw and Mulberry streets, near Howard Row.

“I look at the whole neighborhood and see the old Martick’s restaurant site being rebuilt, the new Lexington Market project and the conversion of the Drovers Mechanics Bank into a hotel,” French said.

Howard Row’s developer, Greg Kostrikin, said: “We are slowly but surely turning this end of Howard Street around.”

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