City wants $20 million upgrade at Lexington Market

Charles Kelley stands in Baltimore's historic Lexington Market, chowing down on a Faidley's overstuffed crab cake sandwich.

It doesn't bother the 37-year-old North Carolina man that the market doesn't have gourmet coffee, wine or cheese shops. He's OK with the faded signs and the dirty floor. As jumbo lump crab meat spills out of his sandwich, Kelley is in a state of bliss.

"I've had crab cake sandwiches all over," he says, "and this is the best."

While devotees such as Kelley, who come from long distances for the renowned seafood at the 231-year-old market, are content with their surroundings, city officials are hoping to attract a broader audience.

The Baltimore Public Market Corp., the quasi-public agency that runs Lexington Market and four other public markets in the city, wants a $20 million to $25 million renovation of the facility in hopes of drawing in a wider range of businesses to attract new and different kinds of customers.

"We have voids in our product offering," says Casper Genko, the executive director of the corporation. "We don't have a gourmet cheese shop. We don't have a French baker. We don't have enough ethnic varieties, and enough meat offerings. We don't have a fine wine shop or a bagel shop with a gourmet coffee.

"Those are the kind of things we need."

The city-owned Baltimore Development Corp. issued a request for proposals this week for a consultant to help officials plan a multimillion-dollar renovation to transform the market into a regional draw capable of attracting a "broad mix" of customers.

In the request, the BDC asks for experts in merchandising, architecture, engineering and finance to advise the city on how best to "transform the existing public market into a more aesthetically pleasing and commercially successful environment."

The corporation wants the consultants to offer suggestions on what kind of businesses should stay and go: "What operational changes will support the goal of transforming the market into a regional attraction?"

Genko says city officials have asked for artist's renderings and creative ideas for the market before settling on a direction to take. He says the Baltimore Public Market Corp. will pursue funding from various sources once it has a plan in hand.

"It's hard to go to people and raise the funds to make these changes without a plan," Genko says. Renovations would be phased in, he says, so the market wouldn't have to close for construction.

City officials say they expect to pick a firm by September.

Lexington Market, an anchor of the city's plans to revitalize the Westside neighborhood of Downtown Baltimore, is one of the country's largest and oldest public markets. Established in 1782, the market and its 108 vendors currently draw about 2.8 million visitors annually, officials say.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she wants to see the market return to and ultimately surpass the status it had during her childhood, when her grandmother used to take her to what was a thriving community hub.

"Much of the motivation for me is because I knew what Lexington Market was," she says. "I knew it was a vital and extremely active anchor in that area. I also know and believe in my heart that it can be that again and more."

Rawlings-Blake said her administration has added police officers and cameras outside the market, along with funneling significant investment to the businesses nearby.

The mayor says she envisions a "thriving mixed-use, mixed-income community" that is "careful not to displace the residents that are already there."

At Faidley Seafood, owner Bill Devine, 81, says he agrees with city officials who want the market to be cleaner. But he's worried a large-scale renovation could detract from the market's historic nature.

"The market has character," he says. "I hope they don't make it look like a supermarket."

Devine says he has watched as Lexington Market has changed with the city's history. As Baltimore began to lose population in the 1950s, many of the market's customers fled for the suburbs — or what Devine calls, half-jokingly, "Camelot." He doesn't see them returning any time soon.

"The people from Camelot are not going to drive down here," he says. "I was once sitting in William Donald [Schaefer]'s office when he pounded the desk and said, 'They're not coming back!'"

Genko says the city would not approve plans that would detract from the market's historic nature.

"No one wants to go into any market and totally transform it to something that has no historic significance," he says. "I think the best plans will be plans that maintain the market feel, integrity and history and still maintain the kind of changes we need to make it attractive to new customers."

The city has spent millions of dollars in the past decade to renovate its public markets, but the plan for Lexington is the biggest in recent memory.

Since 2001, the corporation has pumped $12 million into improvements at Lexington Market, including new roofs and air conditioning systems, while performing smaller makeovers at its other markets.

The Cross Street Market was renovated several years ago and given new floors, doors and lighting for $500,000, Genko said. About $2 million was dedicated to the Avenue Market; about $1.7 million for the Northeast Market; $800,000 for the Broadway Market in Fells Point; and about $800,000 for the Hollins Market.

"Most of the markets date back to the 1950s," Genko says. "We've modernized them, but we've still kept the charm. All of the markets need to be constantly revitalized. It doesn't need to take away from the history of a public market to do that."

Rawlings-Blake agrees.

"The only way Lexington Market can surpass where it has been is if we respect its history," she says. "The reason why the public markets in Philly or Boston are popular isn't because they're cookie-cutter of anything you can find anywhere else. It's because they maintain a historic character.

"Lexington Market has good bones. It's just figuring out a way to get back to those and do it in a way that gives us an opportunity to bring in a more diverse offering."

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