AT THIS TIME last year, many Baltimore residents felt little reason to celebrate. A racially divisive mayoral election had failed to seek solutions to pressing problems. The real-estate market was glutted and almost anyone who could seemed to be looking for a way to bail out.
A year later, things still are not great. But there is renewed optimism that Baltimore somehow can overcome its ills. Houses are selling again, new offices are being built, big supermarkets opened. There is even a possibility that at long last something will happen along Howard Street, the city's one-time retail hub that nearly died after being abandoned by the department stores in the 1970s.
How can this be when Morton's discount clothing store at Howard and Lexington is closing?
Morton's was a marginal store. Its closing hardly signals a trend. Instead, City Hall and the private sector ought to concentrate on thinking about what to do about jazzing up a larger downtown area that includes Charles Center, the Baltimore Arena site and the largely vacant Howard Street.
The covenants regulating the 33-acre Charles Center area will expire in 1999. This means that the 30-year-old Morris Mechanic Theater complex, which is badly outmoded, can be redeveloped free of previous restrictions.
The nearby Baltimore Arena also has outlived its usefulness and ought to be replaced. And many of the old and decrepit retail buildings on the Lexington mall cry for intelligent redevelopment.
These multiple sites give the Charles Center-Howard Street area a degree of flexibility it has lacked in the past. For instance, the highly visible Arena site, which has high-rise parking, could be marketed to a major discount department-store chain such as Target. If other well-known stores could be recruited to build new edifices on and around Lexington mall, the city would once again have a much-needed retail area. As it now stands, most city residents must shop in the suburbs.
Over the past couple of decades so many studies have been conducted and so many plans unveiled that residents are justifiably skeptical about a turnaround on Howard Street. This time things may be different, though.
The recent opening of a big store by Rite Aid suggests that at least one national retail chain with deep pockets sees opportunities on Howard Street that many Baltimoreans do not. Even more encouraging are signs that the Weinberg Foundation, which controls many of Howard Street's key properties, has finally shed its lethargy and is seriously considering ways of returning the sites to profitable uses. The Weinberg Foundation's active and purposeful participation is absolutely necessary if this important downtown area is to be rejuvenated.
Mr. Schmoke recently flashed the possibility that the Arena FTC vicinity might become a night-life district for African Americans. He got this idea from state Sen. Larry Young, D-39th, who never seems to have met a gin-mill operator he did not like, if some bucks landed in his money pots.
Except for the Bank, a rock venue, and the Eldorado strip-tease lounge, where patrons get frisked at the door, no night spots currently exist in the area. (Mr. Young dropped his advocacy for a third one after too many thorny questions were asked about the backers' money and character.) Up the street, though, at Howard and Saratoga, someone recently opened the Raven Club.
Maybe night life is Howard Street's future. I doubt it. Successful clubs do not spring from governmental fiats. And since the police already cite the area as a chronic trouble spot with pre-dawn crowds and cruisers, why exacerbate the problem?
Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/21/96