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Realistic goals key to plan downtown; New strategy draws praise from business for its pragmatism

THE BALTIMORE SUN

All too often, plans to revitalize urban areas end up gathering dust on book shelves because they are more dreams than sober assessments of the future.

But a strategy for rejuvenating downtown Baltimore unveiled by the city's leading business organization yesterday is drawing praise from business leaders who say its pragmatism and lack of pie-in-the-sky visions will likely prove the key to its success.

The Downtown Partnership's 36-page Central Business District Plan does not call for monorail trains skimming above Charles Street. It does not reimagine the financial district as the Silicon Valley of the Chesapeake region.

The plan calls for the construction of three parking garages that are funded, but not built.

It demands an expansion of a video-camera crime-prevention system that has proved effective downtown.

It envisions a park with grass and trees in what is public space, the Center Plaza. It imagines 1,000 apartments in an area along Charles Street where 200 are on their way. And it calls for a new court -- now in the state budget -- to speed the prosecution of quality-of-life crimes such as aggressive panhandling and public drunkenness.

In short, the Central Business District Plan is winning raves because it is not too bold.

"I think it's a great plan because it is both achievable and will bring a lot of energy and new blood downtown," said Donald Manekin, a senior vice president with Manekin LLC real estate development and brokerage company.

"Now all the city and the business community have to do is put the money where their mouths are," said Manekin. "I really think we've got to pull the trigger and make this happen because successful urban areas make the whole regions around them so much stronger."

The cost of the proposals outlined by the Downtown Partnership has not been calculated. And both candidates for mayor -- Democrat Martin O'Malley and Republican David F. Tufaro -- have said they want to review the plan before making any promises.

Mark K. Joseph, chairman of the Shelter Group real estate development and management firm, is one of several city business leaders who said he's seeing signs of hope that investors are regaining their interest in the city center.

The proposal by the Weinberg Foundation and three other development firms to build hundreds of apartments and dozens of shops near Lexington Market and the Hippodrome Theater on the west side of downtown is one ray of hope, Joseph said.

Another reason for optimism is Peter G. Angelos' decisions to purchase and fix up two office buildings near his One Charles Center law offices and work with the Johns Hopkins University to create a center for continuing education in the Hamburger Building on Charles Street, Joseph said.

"It is important that the city not overlook its central business district in our excitement about the success of the Inner Harbor," said Joseph.

Bill Couper, president of the Greater Baltimore region of the Bank of America, said he's optimistic because the Downtown Partnership has a proven track record of succeeding in small but important programs to improve the quality of life in the center city.

The nonprofit organization, created in 1983 as the Charles Street Management Association, has 100 employees, a headquarters at 217 N. Charles St. and $4 million annual budget funded by tax on local businesses and contributions from the city and state.

In the mid-1980s, the organization focused on trying to lure retail stores to the North Charles Street area. After it changed its name to the Downtown Partnership and broadened its focus in 1990, it started programs to have unarmed security guards walking the streets downtown and monitoring video cameras mounted above Howard and Charles streets.

By the late 1990s, the group had started detailed studies of parking problems and economic conditions downtown. And in 1997, its members concluded that it needed to create a strategic plan to revitalize the business district because it was lagging behind the success of the Inner Harbor, according to organization officials.

"This plan is the most ambitious thing that we have done so far, but it builds on a logical evolution the organization has undertaken over the years," said Laurie Schwartz, director of the partnership.

One proposal in the Central Business District plan is to encourage the development of 1,000 more apartments along Charles Street south of Mount Vernon. Already, 208 are in the planning stages at 501 St. Paul St., 300 N. Charles St. and 333 N. Charles St.

Lisa Raimundo, director of business development for the partnership, said it's reasonable to conclude a market exists for at least another 792 because the recently renovated Gallery Towers at 111 W. Centre St. leased all of its 144 apartments shortly after it opened in May. A recent study by Hammer, Siler, George and Associates of Bethesda predicted a market appetite for perhaps 1,200 more units downtown.

The plan also calls for three new parking garages with at least 1,500 parking spaces downtown.

This goal is seen as possible, Raimundo said, because the City Council in the spring of last year authorized $75 million in bonds for the construction of parking garages. And this spring, the council designated five potential sites for garages -- including the 200 block of St. Paul St. and Clay and Liberty streets -- although the city needs to buy these sites, issue final approvals and select builders for these projects.

The Downtown Partnership's proposal calls for the creation of a "community court" to speed prosecution of quality-of-life crimes.

The state has included $950,000 in its fiscal year 2000 budget to create this court in a vacant bank building at 33 S. Gay St., said Tracy Brown, project coordinator of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which is leading the effort and has raised $1.6 million for the program.

The court is expected to open late next year, assuming the General Assembly grants its final approval of the plans this winter, Brown said.

The Downtown Partnership has seen a decrease in thefts from automobiles because it monitors the 32 video cameras on Howard and Charles streets. So adding 48 cameras around downtown is not expected to face much opposition, partnership officials said.

The proposal to create a grassy park out of the concrete Center Plaza north of Fayette Street and west of Charles Street has the approval of the property owner, Edison Properties of New Jersey. It needs an uncalculated amount of city funding.

"What we are proposing is very pragmatic and practical," said Schwartz.

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