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Howard St. needs cars, panel says Mayoral commission envisions more bustle along downtown strip; Once a main thoroughfare; Blocks closed off in late 1980's to make way for light rail

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nearly a decade after automobiles were banned from sections of Howard Street for construction of the state's light rail line through Baltimore, a mayoral commission is encouraging the city to bring them back.

The group of 60 business owners and community leaders also would like to see the city build a large meeting and exposition center along Howard Street to replace Festival Hall, the recently demolished exhibit center that drew thousands to the Convention Center area for car shows, crafts fairs and other events.

And it still supports the proposal for a $60 million performing arts center in the Mount Royal cultural district.

These are among the dozens of recommendations developed by the Howard Street Task Force, a citizens' panel appointed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to recommend ways to reinvigorate the once-bustling Howard Street corridor.

Mr. Schmoke is scheduled to receive and comment on the panel's final report during a ceremony today. As part of the event, he will begin the installation of street signs that will identity Howard Street as "The Avenue of the Arts."

The Schmoke administration also has committed $175,000 in city funds to the task force to help fund arts programming, special events, feasibility studies and leasing and development efforts. It will be combined with $25,000 from the Market Center Association.

"Revitalizing Howard Street is a process that takes time and careful planning," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, a management organization that led the year-long search for ideas.

"Each recommendation by the task force follows a strategy that relies on building momentum with individual projects, which we believe will lead to a successful and innovative approach to revitalizing Howard Street."

The planning effort began in August 1994, when Mayor Schmoke established the task force and asked it to develop practical ideas for rejuvenating Howard Street, from Camden Yards on the south to the Mount Royal cultural district on the north.

The Baltimore Development Corp. and the Mayor's Advisory Committee for Art and Culture worked with the Downtown Partnership and five working committees of the task force, chaired by merchant Milt Rosenbaum and architect Steve Ziger.

One of the group's most far-reaching recommendations is to "encourage and improve vehicular traffic flow along Howard Street."

This would change the traffic pattern established in the late 1980s, when cars were banned from several blocks of Howard Street near Lexington Street for construction and operation of the light rail line.

Since then, merchants have complained that the area doesn't get adequate street traffic because people can't drive through.

According to city officials, a study by Sabra, Halkias and Associates Inc. offers several options for returning cars to Howard Street so they can coexist with light rail cars and buses.

The alternatives will be shared with city and state transit officials and circulated to area merchants for comment. A final recommendation is expected by year's end.

The task force also recommended increasing police visibility along the corridor, keeping the area cleaner, improving lighting and developing a strategy for turning vacant sites into development opportunities.

The panel suggested that Howard Street be divided into three segments for planning purposes, with distinctive themes for each. In the "northern section," from Preston to Centre streets, planners would focus on arts, entertainment, culture and housing, including housing for artists.

In the central section, from Centre to Fayette streets, the focus would be on retailing.

In the southern section, from Fayette to Pratt streets, the focus would be on sports, governmental and university-related uses, to take advantage of the corridor's proximity to the University Center district and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

650 organizations

In its 30-page report, the panel noted that Maryland has more than 650 nonprofit arts organizations, which attract 6 million visitors and provide 12,000 jobs. "The task force fully endorses the use of arts and culture as a way to generate more activity and life for the Howard Street corridor," the report says.

Specific arts-related development suggestions included recycling the Hippodrome Theater as a performing arts center or National Museum of Live Entertainment, restoring the Mayfair Theater for live performances and films and creating an arts center similar to Alexandria, Va.'s Torpedo Factory -- a concept that has been discussed with the owners of the mostly vacant Stewart & Co. building.

Ethnic marketplace

The panel also suggested that Howard Street be promoted as an ethnic marketplace and the vacant Congress Hotel on Franklin Street be converted to apartments.

Members also said they would like to see the city create an exhibit facility comparable to the 50,000-square-foot Festival Hall, which stood at Pratt and Howard streets from 1984 to the early 1990s. Since it was razed to make way for a convention center expansion, many of the car shows and crafts fairs have moved to the suburbs.

Some ideas in the report have been implemented, including the installation of a police "koban" booth at Howard and Lexington streets, formation of a nonprofit corporation to build housing for artists in the 400 block of Howard St. and planning for a new home for the Eubie Blake National Jazz Museum and Cultural Center in the 500 block of Howard St.

The Maryland Historical Society last week launched a $20 million expansion, starting with conversion of the former Greyhound bus garage to a showcase for 350 years of Maryland history.

Murals have been painted along the 400 and 500 blocks of Howard St. to improve the area's appearance.

The Baltimore Young Architects Committee, an affiliate of the American Institute of Architects, is planning a design competition to generate development ideas for Howard Street.

Visiting the Maryland Historical Society on Saturday, Mayor Schmoke indicated that he supports many of the task force's ideas, such as the Avenue of the Arts theme.

But he said the city is not likely to seek state funding next year for the $60 million performing arts center that has been proposed for a state-owned parcel at 901 N. Howard St.

He said planners need to work on designs and build public support for the project before applying for state funding.

The performing arts center was proposed several years ago as a possible replacement for the Morris Mechanic Theatre, nearly 30 years old.

"We still support the concept," Mr. Schmoke said. But "I don't think all the details are finalized for us to go in for legislative funding" next spring.

Mr. Schmoke also said he does not favor the idea of designating Howard Street a historic district, as the Maryland Historical Trust has suggested. Trust officials say owners of vacant or underused buildings would have more tax incentives to repair them if the corridor were designated a historic district. But Mr. Schmoke said he fears any designation could lead to more "red tape" for them.

"This brings in a lot of governmental issues, when you think about it," the mayor said.

The corridor was the main north-south thoroughfare of Baltimore's expansion in the late 1700s and early 1800s and still has many buildings along it dating from the 1800s and early 1900s.

The task force recommends that Howard Street's "historic character should be preserved," in part by "encouraging the adaptive reuse of important historic buildings as a first option before buildings are demolished and rebuilt."

But it also says that "a commitment should be made to balance historic preservation with new construction as appropriate."

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