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Proposal seeks to revitalize the city; Business group wants new downtown park, cameras and garages

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Downtown Baltimore's leading business group proposes luring more people into the city's center by creating a new park, installing dozens of video cameras to deter crime, building at least three parking garages, and allowing free parking at night.

The plan, to be unveiled today by the Downtown Partnership, is designed to attract up to 2,300 new employees and 1,000 downtown residents and boost retail sales in the area by $1.5 million a year.

The 16-year-old organization is unveiling its strategy for revitalizing Charles Street and the central business district a week before a mayoral election that will bring the first change in city leadership in 12 years.

The Downtown Partnership's executive director, Laurie Schwartz, is co-leader of Democratic mayoral nominee Martin O'Malley's transition team, which is helping him select what could be the next administration in a city in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 9-to-1 ratio.

"We decided that we had to find a way to encourage businesses to stay and move into the downtown business district," said Schwartz. "This area and historic Charles Street are very important to the city -- not only because of their architecture, but also because of their cultural attractions and retail."

Neither O'Malley nor Republican David F. Tufaro had seen the Downtown Partnership proposal.

Schwartz said the Downtown Partnership decided two years ago that such a plan was needed when a study by the group found a "great disparity" between the booming prosperity of the Inner Harbor and the lagging district a few blocks north.

While office buildings surrounding the harbor had a vacancy rate of about 8 percent in 1997, the rate was at least 20 percent in the older central business district, Schwartz said.

A team of planners and business leaders working with the Downtown Partnership decided that a key to downtown's success was encouraging the development of at least 1,000 more apartments in the Charles Street area and creating the feeling of a close-knit urban neighborhood, Schwartz said.

A fresh Center Plaza

The organization wants to transform the barren cement Center Plaza north of Fayette and west of Charles Street into a park with grass, trees, benches, tables and frequent outdoor concerts, according to the 36-page Central Business District Plan.

Built 36 years ago, the plaza in the shadow of the One Charles Center office building featured festivals and concerts in its early years. But the city removed its benches because vagrants often slept on them, and the space is now often empty.

The Downtown Partnership proposes that the city create a quasi-public agency to maintain, patrol and organize entertainment for Center Plaza and two other downtown parks, Preston Gardens on St. Paul Street and Mount Vernon Park.

The cost of the project has not been determined, Schwartz said. The organization hopes to win financial support from the city government and downtown business leaders, she said.

"We believe that Center Plaza can be turned around and become a place where employees are drawn on their lunch hours and after work," Schwartz said.

The plaza and 650-car parking garage beneath it are owned by Newark, N.J.-based Edison Properties LLC. But the company has already granted the city the rights to use the space on top as a plaza or park, said Mike Lewis, general manager of the company's Baltimore properties.

Lewis said the company supports replacing the concrete with grass and trees, but added that the city should pay to create the park.

O'Malley said he likes the idea of creating green space downtown, but added that he needs to study the proposal.

Tufaro, who will face O'Malley in the general election on Nov. 2, said the concept of a park is much better than the proposal by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos in March 1998 to build a parking lot in place of the plaza. That idea received a lukewarm reception from city officials.

"The question is, Tufaro said, "does the city have the money for the ongoing maintenance of the park? That is extremely important."

Crime deterrent

The Downtown Partnership also proposes to expand the use of video cameras posted above downtown streets to deter crime.

Since 1996, the organization, which is based at 217 N. Charles St. and pays 45 unarmed security guards to patrol downtown, has monitored 16 video cameras mounted atop buildings and poles along Howard Street from Saratoga to Lombard streets.

Police recorded a 44 percent drop in reported crimes in the area of Howard Street monitored by the cameras from 1997 to 1998, said Richard Cross, a partnership spokesman.

Since January, the organization also has monitored 16 cameras on Charles Street, from Baltimore Street to Centre Street. During the first seven months of this year, police recorded a 60 percent drop in thefts from cars in that area, Cross said.

The Downtown Partnership proposes to install 48 more video cameras around the Hippodrome Theater on the west side of downtown, in the financial district and along Park Avenue. Eventually, the organization would like cameras all over downtown.

The Downtown Partnership also proposes to ask the City Council to pass legislation making it illegal to sleep or camp outside downtown at night. The partnership wants police and security guards to encourage homeless people to move into shelters, drug treatment centers and hospitals, if they need medical attention, Schwartz said.

"Especially with the winter coming, sometimes these people living on the streets can't survive the cold weather," Schwartz said. "We want to encourage them to get help in shelters and medical facilities."

Brendan Walsh, co-founder of the Viva House soup kitchen in southwest Baltimore, said he opposes any law that would prohibit people from sleeping on the streets.

"The city can't do anything about the poverty problem, and so they just do more harassment," said Walsh. "The only place for the poor in this city is in jail."

Other proposals in the Downtown Partnership's long-term plan include:

Encouraging the construction of at least three parking garages with 1,500 spaces over the next three years. There are 24,000 spaces downtown.

Urging the city to allow free parking on downtown streets after 6 p.m.

Helping developers convert the 200 block of E. Baltimore St., which includes the Munsey Building, into a complex with 250,000 square feet of offices, 32,000 square feet of retail and 850 parking spaces.

Urging the city to create a "community court" that would speed the prosecution of nuisance crimes downtown such as aggressive panhandling and graffiti.

Installing old-fashioned street lamps and brick sidewalks along Charles Street and marketing the strip as a residential area.

Asking the city to pass legislation making it easier to finance construction of parking garages and street improvements by allowing creation of a special tax district that would pay back city bonds through increases in assessments.

Encouraging developers to convert old and partly vacant office buildings along Preston Gardens on St. Paul Street into apartments.

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