A GROUP OF 60 business owners and community leaders says that cars ought to be brought back to Howard Street. Perhaps. But rather than rushing to do an expensive street realignment a decade after cars were banished because of light rail, the city ought to implement a detailed redevelopment strategy for the street that was once the city's retail center.
Many elements of a comprehensive strategy already exist. Among them are the Maryland Historical Society's expansion, a plan to build a new home for the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center at the corner of Howard and Franklin streets and a scheme that would turn the west side of the 400 block into artists' housing, studios, shops and restaurants. Further south, Rite Aid Corp. has bought the old Hecht department store building and is reconstructing part of its ground floor into a big drug and convenience store.
When that store is ready early next year, the shopping complex across the street that today contains Rite Aid and until recently also accommodated Woolworth's and McCrory's, will be completely empty. If life is to return to Howard Street, much depends on how that stretch will be redeveloped. Ditto for the nearby old Stewart's department store building.
Light rail did not revitalize Howard Street. But neither did automobiles prevent it from dying, when unrestricted car traffic was allowed there. Which suggests that Howard Street's future does not solely depend on cars.
If Howard Street is again going to be a popular meeting place, patrons need convenient parking. That can be secured only through selective demolition of unnecessary buildings and requires the cooperation of major property holders, particularly the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
A couple of decades ago, urban planners thought pedestrian malls would stop the decay of center-city shopping areas. After that approach did not produce desired results, cities began reopening such areas to traffic, which is what the Howard Street group now advocates. That, too, is unlikely to be a panacea. What Howard Street needs is practical, yet imaginative solutions. Those can happen only when the Weinberg Foundation, its major property owner, becomes fully involved in leading the way.