Downtown revival requires direction; Challenge: New mayor must combine overlapping visions into workable revitalization plan.


THERE IS a downside to the Inner Harbor success: As businesses keep gravitating to prestigious locations south of Baltimore Street, aging buildings in more distant parts of the central business district go out of favor. What to do?

Downtown Partnership suggests turning vacant and underutilized office buildings along Preston Gardens -- the sliver-like park that divides St. Paul Street across from Mercy Hospital -- into 1,000 apartments. Among eight buildings being considered for conversion are the old 15-story Stanbalt tower as well as the Bell Atlantic and Commercial Credit buildings.

This is only one of many provocative ideas contained in Downtown Partnership's strategic plan. The key recommendation: Establishing a full-time development staff to unite downtown planning under a single leadership.

This is a concept Mayor-elect Martin J. O'Malley's transition team must seriously consider.

At least seven different -- but often overlapping -- initiatives are under way, covering everything from the west side and Charles Street/Mount Vernon to an area east of City Hall stretching to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

For more than 40 years, Baltimore has grappled with downtown redevelopment.

In 1959, work on Charles Center gave birth to the city's first quasi-government revitalization agency, which was followed 16 years later by an overall economic development corporation. In 1991, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke merged the two into the Baltimore Development Corp.

The housing department still controls some development functions, which complicates the picture. The planning department also is involved. So is Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit management and promotion agency.

The change of city administration could finally extend the revival of central business district beyond the Inner Harbor and Charles Center. Private developers are ready to invest in rebuilding.

This momentum has to be encouraged and directed. The best way to do that is to revive an agency that has downtown redevelopment as its sole responsibility.

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