Calling it "one of the most exciting moments" of his 10-year administration, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke unveiled a $350 million redevelopment plan for downtown Baltimore yesterday that would rival the Inner Harbor renewal of two decades ago.
The renovations would be fueled by business dollars and completed by 2007, renewing a city core that for years has been left economically gasping from the flight of jobs and shoppers to the suburbs.
Apartments, shops and offices would be added west of Charles Street, and Lexington Market -- the nation's oldest operating market -- would get another makeover that includes reopening Lexington Street to traffic again.
"I don't want to make this sound like the second coming, but this is very significant for this city," a beaming Schmoke said. "We're talking here about commitments that will produce not only thousands of jobs but millions of dollars in tax revenues."
The plan has the critical backing of the city's heavy financial hitters, including Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, the University of Maryland and the Weinberg Foundation, which holds $1.2 billion in assets including downtown properties.
The group, calling itself the West Side Task Force, will be matched with at least $28 million of city improvements pledged for sidewalks, sanitation and police protection. The renewal will spur 3,200 new jobs, the plan predicts.
Angelos and other task force representatives sat with the mayor during his weekly news conference yesterday. Perched on easels behind them were architects' drawings showing revitalized shopping areas including Eutaw, Lexington and Howard streets.
The business task force began meeting informally 18 months ago to discuss ways to resuscitate downtown. Increasing news reports of "crime and grime" in the city drove the effort, said Weinberg trustee Bernard Siegel.
"While we can blame it on a number of things, we realized the decay in the west side area was a major part," Siegel said yesterday. "This is the core of the doughnut that isn't too healthy, and we intend to make it" healthy.
The city has already created legislation to begin buying properties in the targeted area. City Council introduced a bill creating a west side urban renewal district, while on Wednesday the city Board of Estimates approved spending $250,000 to purchase two properties in the 400 block of Howard St.
"Everyone involved is very, very anxious to make this happen," Siegel said. "We're going to do it."
Business and citizen reaction to the proposal ranged from hearty welcome to trepidation.
At Sunny's Surplus on the corner of Baltimore and Eutaw streets, a glimpse of the city drawings sent Assistant Manager Rob Clark "back in the day" when he met his father, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. employee, at Read's drugstore downtown for lunch.
"There used to be all the major department stores at Lexington and Howard streets, and we used to see Santa Claus," said Clark, 31, who compared the plan drawings to Towson Commons. "They need to do something. After you get beyond the antique stores on Howard Street, downtown looks like a bomb shelter."
Others, such as Lou Boulmetis, whose family has owned businesses near Eutaw Street for 70 years, wondered aloud about the future of current downtown businesses that remained while others fled.
"It's not a simple question of build it, they'll come and they'll shop," said Boulmetis, owner of Hippodrome Hatters at 15 Eutaw St. "These businesses are here today because there is a market for our goods and services."
Boulmetis recalled past plans that included turning the Hippodrome Theater -- a vintage 1914 Eutaw Street auditorium whose renewal is critical to the new plan -- into a vaudeville history museum. Other plans involved David Murdoch, owner of Baltimore's Harbor Court Hotel, buying and renovating area property.
"We've seen a lot of plans," Boulmetis said. "We haven't seen a lot of plans come to fruition."
Improvements to Baltimore's downtown will not come without culture clash.
The shopping district -- once as vital as any in America -- has been crippled by the city's growing minimum-wage service economy that has sprouted wholesale discount outlets and dollar stores.
The plan released yesterday spelled out the woeful state of downtown shops: "25 percent are vacant, 18 percent are devoted to hair care and related products, 12 percent are related shoes and 8 percent are related to check-cashing services."
Designers of the west-side plan aim to attract more people by creating up to 2,600 apartments and hundreds of new stores.
Fueling the redevelopment plan is the growth of the University of Maryland and its Medical Systems. The school campus west of Eutaw Street has grown 25 percent in recent years by tapping into a flood of federal money for AIDS and cancer research.
The university receives $140 million annually for research that helps employ 13,000 workers. The university hopes to expand further because the federal government is expected to double funding for National Institutes of Health research.
Schmoke likens the redevelopment plans to similar efforts guided by business leaders in the 1950s and 1970s.
While the creation of the Inner Harbor in 1980 was hailed as one of the nation's most successful urban renewal projects, city historians criticize it for making developers and business owners richer while isolating the urban poor as city subsidies for services such as education dropped. Kenny Benni hawked T-shirts and cologne yesterday at a stand across from Lexington Market. Benni, 42, looked over drawings that showed the spot where he was standing transformed into coffee shops, restaurants and cafes.
"Doesn't matter what we think," Benni said. "If that's what they want to do, that's what they're going to do."
The project dovetails with the city Department of Housing and Community Development's plan to demolish five high-rise public housing projects and turn them into single-family houses and townhouses by 2002. The renovation would also tie the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards and Ravens stadium to the University of Maryland expansion, the mayor said.
"This plan reaches out and says that everyone is going to be included," Schmoke said. "This is just not the exclusive impact on downtown business people, it's the quality of life in the city."
The renovation project thrusts Angelos into the forefront of city change again. The attorney who made his fortune litigating asbestos cases has injected much of his millions into civic causes, such as saving the Orioles from leaving town and hiring more police officers to patrol downtown streets.
Angelos owns One Charles Center and plans to build a $150 million hotel next to the Baltimore Convention Center. He acknowledged that the redevelopment would aid his downtown interests, but said providing downtown Baltimore with a boost was his impetus.
"This plan is so broad and of such magnitude that it really isn't a question of how it affects one individual," Angelos said. "This is a major step forward for the city."
Pub Date: 6/26/98