The Downtown Partnership’s State of Downtown Report that came out this week describes Baltimore’s business district as undergoing a “reimagining.”
It speaks of a “future of mixed-use buildings, increased amenities, walkability, new ideas, and a new narrative.”
These are nice words, but to anyone who visits or walks around downtown Baltimore, the evolving nature of the place is obvious. And it’s not all about what tenants can move into Harborplace. Downtown Baltimore is a far larger and more nuanced place than the harborside pavilions.
The current remake of what was once the 1962 Civic Center — current name: CFG Bank Arena — could, if this venue is aggressively booked with live entertainment shows, shake things up and bring a burst of energy to West Baltimore Street when the crowds arrive.
Similarly, the State of Maryland continues to reinvest in Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium.
You could say the start of this phase of the new downtown neighborhood began when Washington-based developer David Hillman came to Baltimore and envisioned the potential of the large buildings that were then outliving their old economic usefulness.
This movement began in 1998, when Hillman purchased Baltimore’s last active large downtown department store, the Hecht Co., at Howard and Lexington streets.
He saw in this roomy 1927 building the potential to house people who wanted to live close to work. The building was well known to Baltimoreans — it had served, over the years, the old Bernheimer-Leader and May Company department stores before becoming known as Hecht’s.
Hillman made it apartments and kept a pharmacy on the first floor. He also did not stop with one building.
He soon bought the old Standard Oil Building on Saint Paul Place and the former Lexington Street headquarters of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
In that past quarter century, the move to reclaim old downtown business buildings and retrofit them as apartments has gone from a one-time exception to an ongoing progression.
On a recent walk through downtown, I noticed numerous examples of construction crews working on 100-plus-year-old office buildings.
An obvious example is the conversion of the old Continental Trust building at Calvert and Baltimore streets. It’s a vintage structure that survived the Baltimore Fire of 1904 and is now known as The Calvert.
Keep an eye on Howard Street, the once beloved shoppers thoroughfare that has become a persistent barrier to downtown optimism. It’s rough now but also ripe for a makeover.
Yonah Zahler, developer of the old Mayfair Theater property said he’s already prepping that site, at the corner of Howard and Franklin, for a new apartment building tied into the preservation of the theater facade.
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Nearby commercial property owners have identified Howard Street’s daunting issues and are looking into the future for more, to use that word, “reimagining.” They foresee a greener, cleaner, more pleasant Howard Street as a popular gathering destination.
If that seems a distant goal, remember that Baltimore’s entire harbor was once a semi-derelict waterfront zone.
Howard Street advocates realize a new and improved corridor will not arrive overnight. There are questions with light rail and the fact the street bed sits atop the heavily used (but unseen) Howard Street rail tunnel.
The current State of Downtown Report is on to something. Downtown Baltimore is an emerging entity. The residential neighborhood component needs the traffic to be calmed, the streets to be greened up and cleaned, and (a big goal) much improved retail shopping.
Brad Byrnes, who sells and leases property and owns the Redwood Exchange in the old financial district, notes that there are now 39,168 permanent residents living within a mile of the Pratt and Light street intersection.
He pointed out that during the coronavirus pandemic, some urban pundits were forecasting that business and residents would flee downtown Baltimore because of its density.
“The opposite has proven true,” Byrnes said. “Downtown Baltimore is now one of the most exciting places in Maryland to live, work and play.”