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Expecting light rail to bring shoppers, merchants spruce up Howard Street


North Howard Street merchants, hoping to lure some of the thousands of commuters who will daily pass by their shops and restaurants when the light-rail line opens, have launched a "spring cleaning" campaign to spruce up the once bustling, now shabby shopping district.

The cleanup, which is being coordinated by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, will include repairing broken windows and damaged awnings, painting building facades, removing graffiti, sweeping the sidewalks and increasing police patrols.

Low-interest city and state loans will be available to property owners for renovations. And the finishing touches will include 50 new trees, colorful banners lining the street and murals that will be painted by the city on blank walls.

By the time the Orioles' Opening Day rolls around April 6, officials and business leaders hope to show off the street's newly polished image.

"The eyes of the world are going to be on us," said Laurie B. Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership. "There are a lot of people who are going to be downtown who haven't been downtown in a long time. . . . This signals the rebirth of Howard Street."

Howard Street was once the premier shopping district in Baltimore. But its retail businesses have suffered from the general decline that took place downtown as population and stores moved out to the suburbs, Ms. Schwartz said.

Construction projects have repeatedly disrupted traffic for the past decade.

First it was the subway. Then the sidewalks got a face lift with new concrete and inlaid brick, and the distinctive hook-shaped light standards were installed.

And then construction of the light rail began in June 1990. Customers could not park, and Mass Transit Administration buses were diverted.

Many merchants said they have lost business and have struggled to hang on. Many others closed shop.

"Eight stores closed in this block in the last three years," said Marie DeRito, who owns Kent Fisher Furs in the 300 block, a shop that has been in the area since 1948.

"We lost a lot of business because of the construction. People couldn't get in. The only way they could get in was with a helicopter."

Across the street and up a block, a canvas sign reading "Welcome Light Rail" hangs in front of the Mee Rak Restaurant. Owner Chae Hyon Song said business had been slow since he bought the restaurant three years ago, but he is optimistic that things will pick up soon.

"Before, all the stores were empty," he said. "Now, a lot of new businesses have opened."

Mrs. DeRito said the rejuvenation had better be done quickly.

"Thousands of people will be passing by and, if they see this place looking dilapidated, they'll think, 'What an awful place in the city we're going through,' " she said.

"But I feel Howard Street can be saved. With businesses brought LTC into the empty stores, there's no reason it can't be saved."

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