Charles Street, once a thriving shopping district, now suffers a 21 percent vacancy rate for street-level retail space between Pratt Street and North Avenue.
An effort is under way to help improve the fortunes of the diverse, 22-block corridor, building on recent investments such as the revamped Walters Art Museum in Mount Vernon.
A group of business and civic leaders has set up a private nonprofit group called the Charles Street Development Corp. Its purpose: to lure retailers and developers to the street, in part by tackling problems such as parking.
In the process, the corporation hopes to focus attention on a core part of downtown that has been starved of it lately, Chairman Henry G. Hagan said yesterday.
"If you work on Inner Harbor East and the West Side, but continue to neglect Charles Street, you'll have decay at the spine, and you need a strong spine as well," said Hagan, chief executive officer of Monumental Life Insurance Co., which has its headquarters at the corner of Charles and Chase streets.
The task is complicated by the street's variety, ranging from the tourist-dominated waterfront to bedraggled North Avenue. Then there is the poor economy, though that is deemed an advantage because rents are relatively low.
"We're looking at the recession, if you will, as an opportunity for Charles Street," said Executive Director Rebecca Gagalis, once a Baltimore city planner.
Gagalis, who headed a similar group in Tampa, has met with 10 developers. She has mailed about 200 information packages to potential developers and tenants.
The group is working to get a lunchtime shuttle to travel up Charles Street -- a possible first step to restoring trolley service that began in the 1980s. It is leading an effort to find a consultant to study parking, which is dominated by monthly permit holders.
The nonprofit group is getting involved in beautification efforts: It has asked the city for money to spruce up Charles from Madison Street to North Avenue beginning in 2003. It is also helping to coordinate several groups that will focus on particular neighborhoods along Charles, such as Mount Vernon.
Lee Whitehead, co-owner of Nouveau Contemporary Goods at 519 N. Charles St., welcomed the news. A chief complaint: frequent parking tickets for the store's delivery truck.
"If they want business downtown," he said, "they've got to help us."
In some ways the nonprofit group is reminiscent of the 1980s, when Charles Street Management Corp. began. It grew into the Downtown Partnership, whose focus extends beyond Charles Street.
Gagalis and her board members do not dwell on the street's woes. They note $430 million in new projects or proposals, including developer David H. Hillman's plan to overhaul Charles Plaza.
"We felt there was so much going on, we needed a full-time entity with a full-time, paid staff," said Kemp Byrnes, president of the Historic Charles Street Association.
The group's 33-member board of directors includes lawyer and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos and city officials such as M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.
Though it is private, it received some government funding to get started, including $50,000 from the state and $50,000 from the city. First called Historic Charles Street Renaissance Corp., it is based in Angelos' downtown law firm.