Where racks of ties and boxes of shirts clutter a second-floor storage space over a Main Street clothing store, Larry Vincent sees a cozy living room with a great view of downtown Annapolis.
Where mannequins and light bulbs fill shelves in an adjoining room, he envisions a nook where someone could whip up a pasta dinner by the light of Main Street's Colonial-style lamps.
Vincent, owner of Laurance Clothing at 232 Main St., wants to convert his second-floor storage space into a one-bedroom apartment. Where he sees an opportunity to reel in rent money, Annapolis preservationists see a way to keep Main Street from turning into a historic Disneyland teeming with tourists by day but empty of residents after nightfall.
For almost 20 years, Annapolis businesses and preservationists have talked about the importance of renovating mostly unused second stories in about 50 Main Street buildings to maintain the heart of the state capital as a living community. But a city fire code that requires installation of sprinklers on those floors, high refurbishing costs and a perception that permits are difficult to obtain have derailed second-floor revitalization.
Vincent and other downtown building owners have begun serious talks about second-floor conversions in recent weeks, prompted by the Historic Annapolis Foundation, which has gone so far as to enlist help from a developer working on similar projects in Georgetown in Washington.
Annapolitans have long wanted the apartments. They would bring new tax dollars and residents. More residents could attract amenities such as a grocery store and pharmacy that Annapolitans have clamored for downtown.
Business owners also believe having residents living above their stores would increase nighttime security and prevent problems such as the five-alarm Main Street fire in December 1997.
"We're very much in favor of it," Mayor Dean L. Johnson said. "It provides increased housing in the downtown area without having to provide more infrastructure. There would be active use of space above the stores, and it would give Main Street a small-town feel. And that, ultimately, is what we've always wanted Annapolis to have."
Talk of creating Main Street apartments has taken place since the late 1970s. On some neighboring streets such as Maryland Avenue, most retail stores have apartments above them, where shop owners traditionally have lived.
But on Main Street, where first-floor retail space has changed hands several times in the past 20 years, only about 25 buildings have residential or office space on upper floors, said Russell T. Morgan, chief of the city Bureau of Inspections and Permits.
Most owners Morgan has talked to have not expressed interest in creating apartments -- which would entail spending $6,500 to $15,000 on a sprinkler system per building.
"What's prohibitive is that the city has stringent fire codes that require either two exits [on the upper floors] or sprinklers," said Alderman Ellen O. Moyer of Ward 8. "In these old buildings, business owners simply weren't able to meet those requirements."
Ann Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis preservation foundation, said she and other business owners dredged up the idea of Main Street apartments after the fire nearly two years ago burned a building on Main Street that was built in 1885.
"We began to see vulnerability in empty second floors after the fire," Fligsten said. "Not only are these areas unproductive, they're also unprotected."
To revive the apartment discussion, Fligsten brought in Anthony Lanier of Georgetown, president of Eastbanc Inc. in Washington, and otherwise known as the "King of Georgetown."
In three years, his company snapped up 50 buildings in Georgetown to convert into luxury apartments over prime retail space -- a model of what might be done in Annapolis. When Lanier spoke to 30 business owners, preservationists and politicians last month, they were intrigued.
Born in Brazil and raised in Austria, Lanier is a charismatic speaker who extols the virtues of European cities such as London, where many retail shops have upper-floor apartments. He said his plan in Georgetown is economically feasible because he is not selling the apartments and expects to make a profit on rents -- which begin at $2,200 for a one-bedroom apartment -- in the next 10 years.
"When he spoke to the business owners," Fligsten said, "people kept saying, 'But what about this? What about that?' and he had answers to all their questions."
Within weeks, Annapolis business circles were abuzz with the prospect of following through on a decades-long discussion.
"Mr. Lanier is a very creative individual," said Steve Sameris, president of the Annapolis Business Association. "Here's someone who's accomplished what we perceived as impossible."
Businesses still have concerns. But Fligsten said she and others are inspired to find ways to work around them.
Her ideas include gathering enough interested business owners to effectively lobby the city and state for incentives such as tax rebates, and obtaining funding from European banks. Lanier said foreign banks have been more open to financing projects like his, which are common in Europe.
Last week, Fligsten toured Georgetown for three hours with Lanier, and she plans to discuss her proposal with the mayor.
Residents also have voiced support for the second-floor residential units -- but only if business owners can provide more parking.
The project is gaining momentum. Bruce Properties Ltd. of New York City is drawing up plans for three apartments on the second and third floors of 176 Main St., vacated last year by Crown Books.
Larry Vincent of Laurance Clothing continues to plod up the stairs daily to his second floor, dreaming up ways to make the storage space a home.
He estimated that renovations will cost $50,000 to $100,000. But on a recent day, as he stood in the "living room" and the afternoon sun streamed in, he pondered the apartment he could create. He figured that whatever it costs, he could probably earn it back.