Across Church Circle from Annapolis' thriving Main Street lies a street that has been the target of the city's revitalization plans for more than 15 years.
Officials and residents hope the long-awaited West Street renaissance might be at hand as developers plan significant construction aimed at bringing West Street up to par with the rest of downtown.
Redevelopment in the works along the stretch from the historic district to Westgate Circle includes several office buildings, stores, hotels, restaurants and residences.
Along the circle, on 7 acres considered by many to be the linchpin site, the $175 million Park Place development will add what Mayor Dean L. Johnson describes as "a whole new neighborhood" to Annapolis.
Other developers promise to provide services for local residents and restore to life the quiet corridor that once was the focus of the city's local commerce.
"It's going to be a beautiful street, a happening place," says Jon Mason, the city's planning and zoning director.
Once the main thoroughfare into the city, West Street was lined with department stores, grocery stores and car dealerships. In recent decades, however, it was marked by "drugs and prostitution, empty buildings and abandoned lots," Johnson said.
Its decline began after the opening in 1962 of Parole Plaza, a strip mall outside town that drew customers and shops to the suburbs. Urban renewal of the 1970s led to further deterioration of the street, wiping out nearby neighborhoods.
In 1985, the city devised an "action plan" for the half-mile strip of inner West Street, but that plan stagnated. Though a hotel - now Loews Annapolis Hotel - and a few office buildings opened, they remained developed pockets on an otherwise derelict strip.
The block of the street closest to Church Circle remained more prosperous through the years and was reinvigorated in the early 1990s by the expansion of Rams Head Tavern and the city's construction of Gott's parking garage nearby.
It was only in recent years that the rest of the strip started to attract the intense development plans city officials had wanted. With about 40 percent of the property in the city tax-exempt because of state, county and other ownership, it is there -where several buildings are boarded up or run-down - that city officials have set their sights.
Johnson calls it "the natural commercial growth area for the city of Annapolis."
Arason says the street is the future of the city's non-residential tax base."
"If we are going to have an office area where people can work, it is going to be on West Street." Arason says.
The plan is for the strip to provide employment opportunities including retail and office jobs; include shops and restaurants geared more for local residents than the tourist-oriented shops on Main Street; and help the city become more efficient with parking and a shuttle system connecting it to downtown, Arason says.
"It is a big deal that this is finally happening," Arason says.
Many credit the economic boom of the 1990s for the increase in interest in West Street, but Johnson and Arason also describe a build-it-as-a-magnet approach. It was not until the city committed money to its ideas for West Street that development seemed to take off, they said.
In 1995, the city revised its regulations to allow developers more flexibility. Then it began planning major infrastructure improvements.
The city spent $8 million designing and constructing Westgate Circle, at West Street, Taylor Avenue and Spa Road. Completed in December 1999, it helped define the end of the targeted strip and provide a gate-way into downtown.
In the fall of last year, workers began tearing up part of the street for more than $12 million in work intended to overhaul the city's aging water pipes and utility lines, repave the roads and beautify the streetscape.
The first phase, from Amos Garrett Boulevard to Colonial Avenue, is expected to be completed this winter. The second phase, from Colonial Avenue to Cathedral Street and West Washington Street from West Street to Clay Street, is expected to begin in the spring and take a year to complete.
A 40,000-square-foot office building built by developer Phil Dunn and partners opened at 151 WestSt. in March 1999.
The city soon gave final approval for the construction of a hotel midway down the strip. The $15 million hotel, which has not been formally named, will have about 120 rooms, a restaurant, a bar and meeting space. It is expected to open in May.
The plan for Park Place, the mammoth development at the end of the strip, raised the greatest hopes about West Street.
Developer Jerome J. Parks' plans for the site include a 225-room hotel, two buildings with a total of 235,000 square feet of office space, a 1,200-seat performing arts theater, about 200 condominiums or apartments, and 50,000 square feet of retail space.
The city and county approved a tax incentive financing plan to help pay for part of the 1,400-space underground parking ga-rage planned for the complex.
Construction is expected to begin in the first few months of next year. The flrst phase, including most of the parking garage, one of the office buildings and the hotel, is expected to be completed two years later. The entire project is expected to take 4 1/2 years to complete, says Bob Sudol, development and construction manager for Park Place.
Other projects are in the works.
Dunn is planning a 20,000-square-foot building at 115 West St.
Severn Savings Bank plans to build its headquarters in a 75,000-square-foot office building along Westgate Circle between West Street and Spa Road. The bank's president, Alan Hyatt, whose law firm, Hyatt Peters and Weber, will also move there, says he hopes to begin construction in about a year.
Clemente Development Co. is proposing a 90,000-square-foot office building with first-floor retail on a vacant lot near Monticello Avenue.
The city will construct a parking garage on the lots known as the Knighton property, at West Street and Colonial Avenue. West Village Corp. will renovate the four dilapidated structures and construct a building on the property.
One of the developers, Gavin Buckley, who owns Tsunami Restaurant in the first block of West St., says an upscale restaurant, a fashion boutique, a gift shop, a home furnishings store, a salon and day spa, and seven to 10 apartments are planned for the Knighton site. The stores should begin opening in the summer, Buckley says.
"I think it will be the hippest street in Annapolls," he says.
Officials and developers hope West Street's rebirth will survive the economic downturn of recent months.
Dunn, whose planned building would be "purely speculative" and subject to the demands of the market, was one of the developers burned in the early years of West Street's redevelopment.
He and partners constructed the hotel that is now Loews but turned it over to the bank at the end of the state's savings and loan crisis.
Still, he says, he is confident that his building and the rest of the plans for the street will be realized.
"I don't think it is a question of if it will happen. It is a question of when," he says.
Arason says Annapolis has what it takes to withstand economic setbacks and can draw companies and residents.
"Annapolls is the kind of community where people want to be," Arason says.