Wave of downtown plans rushes away from harbor Baltimore development could spread prosperity if proposals fit together


"If there is magic on this planet," the environmentalist Loren Eiseley once observed, "it is contained in water."

And for many years, the Inner Harbor waterfront was the magic that drove development in downtown Baltimore -- the place where builders most wanted to be.

But all of a sudden, developers and property owners seem to be discovering that there's life beyond the Inner Harbor.

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke unveiled an "action plan" Thursday to revitalize 18 blocks on the west side of downtown, it was the latest of half a dozen initiatives that local groups have launched in recent months to invest in or otherwise rejuvenate sections of downtown Baltimore, none of which is on the waterfront.

Some groups are working closely with the city. Others are working independently. Together, their efforts represent more than $1 billion of potential development over the next decade.

They would bring additional housing, offices, stores and attractions, in a mixture of new and renovaed buildings. They would dramatically alter the landscape for those who live, work or play downtown. They would fill in the gaps between the fixed-up areas of downtown. Most of all, they would spread the vitality of the city far beyond the water's edge.

And it's all fueled by a common conviction that it's not right to fix up the harborfront and let other sections of the city languish.

"The city can't survive with just a waterfront. So much of the city isn't on the water. You have to have a strong core," says Jimmy Rouse, a local businessman and artist who is leading one of the revival efforts.

"Everything does not have to be on the waterfront," agrees Peter G. Angelos, local attorney and Orioles owner, who is influential in several redevelopment projects.

"We can't neglect the rest of the city," argues Bernard Siegel, head of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, leader of another revitalization effort.

Here's what these nonwaterfront initiatives involve:

The Charles Street Corridor -- Seeking to tap into the public's interest in urban retailing, a group headed by Rouse, businessman Kemp Byrnes and others wants to turn a five-block stretch of Charles Street into an open-air shopping and entertainment district.

Mount Vernon -- Eight cultural institutions have joined forces to promote the Mount Vernon historic district as a single, must-see destination, comparable to the Inner Harbor. Together, they're planning more than $100 million worth of improvements to their properties.

Charles Center: Property owners are teaming with the city to revitalize Charles Center, the 33-acre renewal area whose construction preceded the transformation of the Inner Harbor. The initiative is led by Angelos, whose law firm occupies the One Charles Center office tower. Plans include renewal of Center Plaza and Hopkins Plaza, construction of an expanded downtown center for the Johns Hopkins University, and possibly a new use for the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Central business district -- Owners plan to renovate or replace many buildings in the heart of downtown, including Water Street Mews, the Southern Hotel and the former USF&G; headquarters.

East side -- Community leaders this month unveiled a long-range strategy for connecting the downtown business district with the attractions and neighborhoods east of it.

West side -- Trustees of the Weinberg Foundation and other west-side "stakeholders" commissioned Design Collective of Baltimore to prepare a $350 million plan to revive Baltimore's former retail district as a "diverse, vital, desirable urban neighborhood" with housing, offices, shops and entertainment.

Together, these projects could lead to the most sweeping changes downtown since plans were launched for Charles Center and the Inner Harbor.

"Over the next 30 or 40 years, you'll see a totally revitalized downtown," Rouse predicts. "The economics are going to dictate it."

If it all happens, "it would be a major revitalization of the downtown," agreed J. Joseph Clarke, local representative for the team planning to build the $100 million One Light Street office and hotel tower near Light and Baltimore streets.

"It's going to spread the renaissance from one end of the city to the other," Siegel predicts.

The flurry of activity is reminiscent of nothing so much as the period in the late 1970s, before Harborplace opened, when just about every block of the city got spruced up for that event.

This year will bring openings, too, including the $220 million football stadium in Camden Yards and additional phases of the Pier 4 Power Plant and Harborplace renovations.

But more is driving the latest effort than the desire to piggyback on blockbuster openings this year. And unlike the debut of Harborplace, when former Mayor William Donald Schaefer was the cheerleader who goaded private property owners into action, not as much this time is spearheaded by public officials.

At a news briefing Thursday, Schmoke observed that two big differences between the current revitalization efforts for downtown and a plan unveiled in 1991 are that the national economy is much stronger now and that the private sector is taking more of a lead, especially on the west side.

Unlike partnerships of the past, which were government-driven, Schmoke said the west-side plan is "the private sector saying that specific business people are ready to move on a variety of projects that impact the west side of downtown."

The mayor noted that some of the publicly led efforts of the past have turned out to be "counterproductive," including the conversion of Lexington Street to a pedestrian mall and removing cars from part of Howard Street to put in a light-rail line.

"The bottom line is that this is private sector-led, with the public sector as a partner," he said. "The stars line up differently this time."

The latest downtown activity seems to be the byproduct of several events and trends.

Cities are hot again, after years of dormancy or little change. Urbanologists say people are bored with the suburbs and more willing to consider urban centers as places to visit for shopping, dining and entertainment.

In other cities, arts- and entertainment-oriented developments are showing new ways that urban areas can be revived, from New York's Times Square to Cleveland's Flats to Denver's Larimer Square. Local property owners and developers see such creative ideas working elsewhere and are eager to test them here.

Boosted by legislation

In addition, recently passed legislation makes it more profitable to develop urban properties, including elements of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's "Smart Growth" campaign and tax incentives to encourage owners to renovate properties in historic districts.

Walter Sondheim Jr., a senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee and former head of the agency that oversees downtown development for the city, suggests the nonwaterfront activity is a sign of changing attitudes.

"Maybe people feel better about the city," Sondheim said. "There had been a kind of depression mentality about the downtown" because of high office vacancy rates during the early 1990s and other effects of recession, he said, but the latest wave of development activity "encourages people to have more hope for these areas. I think they feel better about the potential for the city."

And too, there is a feeling among some property owners that if they don't soon take the initiative to rejuvenate their properties, they may not get another chance for a long time.

"Maybe the city bottomed out, and everyone understood, just as looked at our properties and said, 'Hey, this is our last chance to get something done,' " Siegel said. " 'If this effort dies, it will be another 20 years [before something good happens]. It will just get worse and worse.' "

Participants in these redevelopment efforts have many different visions for the New Baltimore. And, perhaps because of the grass-roots nature of the efforts, there is no single, overarching vision for the city.

Some say they hope to see areas growing together more, whether it is Charles Center and Market Center, or Charles Center and the Inner Harbor. For that to happen, redevelopment has to reach areas that aren't thriving.

Donald G. Gifford, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law, is planning a $38 million expansion at Paca and Baltimore streets. He said he's excited about the proposed restoration of the nearby Hippodrome Theater, for which the General Assembly allocated $1.7 million in planning funds this spring, because he believes it will speed the growing together of the campus on the west side of downtown and the central business district.

Bringing in a major performing arts center, and the activity that would be associated with it, "could really change the character of the area between the University of Maryland and downtown Baltimore," Gifford said. "It gives me a great deal of hope."

Makes walkers feel safe

Joel Winegarden, manager of real estate development for the Weinberg Foundation, said he'd like to see the streets so attractive and uniformly lively that people staying in hotels downtown will be encouraged to explore Mount Vernon and the Mount Royal cultural district, and won't even have to take a cab to get there. "When you can walk from the Inner Harbor to the Meyerhoff [Symphony Hall, about a mile north], then I'll say we have a great city," he said.

Many property owners want an infusion of new housing to make downtown more of a place where activity doesn't stop when the business day ends. They believe new residences will supplement the offices and bring in people who create a market for shops and restaurants. A market study by Morton Hoffman and Associates indicates a need for 1,800 to 2,400 apartments downtown over the next eight years.

Developers along Howard, Lexington, Charles and Pratt streets and in the Inner Harbor East area plan to bring in more retailers who will draw shoppers downtown.

Milt Rosenbaum, owner of Hosiery World and president of the Downtown Market Center Merchants Association, said he looks forward to when city residents don't have to drive outside the city to buy basic items. He believes the Howard Street corridor, with its light rail and subway stations nearby, would be an ideal location for national retailers looking for urban locations, such as Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart.

"You have a whole inner city full of people who need a place to shop and can't afford to go to Towson or Marley Station," he said. "The space is there. The need is there. The market is there. And you have the best infrastructure of any place in the state of Maryland."

Because there is no one vision, there is more than a little potential for conflicts and problems.

One area subject to many different views is historic preservation.

Historic preservation

As part of the plan to revive Charles Street, leaders say they hope to save historic buildings such as the Masonic Temple. The $35 million plan to save Eutaw Street's Hippodrome Theater is another example of historic preservation playing a key role in an area's revival.

William Pencek, president of Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group, says he'd like to see the area around Lexington Market and the Hippodrome designated a national historic district, so that property owners will be eligible for tax credits for historic preservation.

But not everyone takes a preservation approach.

The Orion Group has plans to tear down two buildings at the southwest corner of Redwood and Calvert streets, including the former headquarters of what became USF&G; Corp., to make way for a garage and office complex.

The west-side study calls for demolition of many older buildings along Howard and Lexington streets. And Clarke's plan to build One Light Street would require demolition of six buildings dating from just after the Great Fire of 1904, including a vacant city landmark, the Southern Hotel.

"We just reached a point where we decided that we can sit on it as it is, indefinitely, or we can work to develop a solution," Clarke said this year. "We prefer to do the latter."

There have also been some disagreements about the locations for particular projects.

Angelos objects

A Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. affiliate, Comfort Link, wanted to build a heating and cooling facility inside the shell of the former Hamburger's clothing store at Charles and Fayette streets, and the city's redevelopment agency supported the plan.

But Comfort Link's project drew objections from Angelos, who didn't think a power plant would be an appropriate, or even a legally permitted, use for the Charles Center renewal area. Angelos eventually blocked Comfort Link's plans by buying the Hamburger's building, and the BGE affiliate now plans to build a cooling plant at the southeast corner of Eutaw and Saratoga streets.

The west-side task force supports relocation of Greyhound's Baltimore bus station from Fayette Street to north of Pennsylvania Station on Charles Street. But leaders of the communities near the train station say they don't believe that's the best use for that land.

These and other conflicts are signs that there has not always been sufficient communication between city agencies and private or institutional property owners.

In January, Schmoke announced that he wants the city planning department to be the agency that steps in and arbitrates conflicts. That will help resolve individual disputes. But it also underscores the lack of one clear strategy for downtown development.

Observers say the next step should be for the various planning groups that have emerged to join forces and come up with one consistent, agreed-upon vision that can guide all of the activity downtown -- physical development, parking, crime prevention, promotion, signs, transportation and other issues.

The ideal solution, said former Mayor Schaefer, would be to have all the groups talking to each other, sharing ideas and coordinating efforts.

'Bring it together'

"Wouldn't it be nice if you could get them all to work under one banner?" he said. "They need to pull it all together."

Angelos said he believes the west-side effort will do just that.

"We're going to bring it together," he said. The west-side plan "is a major step toward the revitalization of the entire downtown and fitting it in exactly with the harbor renewal."

Schmoke also expressed confidence that the disparate planning initiatives can be coordinated effectively.

"We are going to make sure that we plan together," he said. "Charles Graves, our city planning director, is very involved with this effort, so we think we're going to have groups complementing one another and coming together."

Of just as much concern as resolving conflicts is getting adequate support from the city and state for projects such as the Hippodrome performing arts center.

Make it a destination

Even if theater restorers can secure all the money needed to renovate the building itself, planners say, the surrounding area must be upgraded and security must be improved so people will feel safe attending performances there.

The Hippodrome restoration is "a very exciting example of taking an area of town that is fallow and not very popular and making it a destination," said Sandra Hillman, a partner of the Trahan, Burden and Charles ad agency and former director of promotion and tourism for Baltimore.

"You need every city department to work as one to make that happen. You need an enormous commitment on the part of a lot of people, including the theater community. We've done it before. The question is, can we do it again?"

Siegel, the Weinberg Foundation president, said he believes the city is at a rare point when many factions are working together to improve downtown. But without adequate support from the city, he said, it could all fall apart.

"Right now," Siegel said, "everybody's enthusiastic. A lot of people are on the bandwagon. But the city has to follow through. Unless the city is willing to do its part, everybody is going to drop out."

Six initiatives

Charles Street Corridoe: Effort to turn a five-block area into an open-air shopping and entertainment district.

Mount Vernon: Cultural institutions promoting the historic district as a "must see" destination for visitors.

Charles Center: Plans to renew Center Plaza and Hopkins Plaza, expansion of the Johns Hopkins University downtown center, and possible new use for the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Central business district: Plans to renovate or replace buildings like Water Street Mews, the Southern Hotel and former USF&G; headquarters.

East side: Long-range strategy to connect downtown with attractions and neighborhoods to the east.

West side: Plans to revive former retail district with housing, offices, shops and entertainment.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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