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Charles Plaza renovations given the OK


The long-awaited overhaul of downtown Baltimore's Charles Plaza, a space criticized as being stark and barren, is expected to begin this spring.

The renovations, which would cost developer David H. Hillman $5 million to $7 million and take three years, could transform the plaza into a vibrant gathering place in the heart of the city, near Charles and Saratoga streets.

Although Hillman plans to buy the plaza -- created in 1962 as part of the Charles Center urban renewal effort -- it is still owned by the city. Nevertheless, city officials have said Hillman can get started on the work.

"What I really want to do is make the plaza pedestrian-friendly," said Hillman, who has described the area as "horrible" and "like East Berlin."

Shops, including an upscale mini-grocery, will be oriented more toward Charles Street, and the plaza will shrink somewhat. Bigger windows, balconies and lighter-colored brick and masonry will replace the harsh landscape of dark brick. The plaza might even include a 500-student public high school.

The redone area will look "very much like a festival marketplace," said Michele L. Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. business group.

But it's not the only transformation in the works. The city also hopes to reinvigorate the larger Center Plaza, two blocks south on West Fayette Street. That effort, being overseen by Whelley's group, aims to spruce up what she called an uninviting "wasteland." Five designs have been under consideration.

Revamping Charles Plaza will significantly alter one vestige of the 1960s-era effort to revive downtown, long before the Inner Harbor became the city's jewel in the early 1980s.

"I've always thought the architecture on this particular plaza was unusual, given everything else on Charles Street," Whelley said. "It just stands out as being so sharp and stark, as opposed to the detail you find in much of the other architecture."

John W. Mack, an architect at Brown and Craig Inc., which redesigned the plaza, said the "brutal" architecture was typical of the 1960s, whether in Baltimore, Berlin or Boston.

The new plaza, modified once in 1985, will fit better with such elegant edifices as the 133-year-old Masonic Temple across the street, he said. And it should help pull people in rather than repel them.

"It kind of sounds grandiose, but we want to let people reclaim a very active portion of the city's public space," Mack said. "They will do that when they feel comfortable and you provide a sense of security and an attractive destination."

Hillman, chief executive of Southern Management Corp., has wanted to redo Charles Plaza for several years. Although he owns the nearby 400-unit Charles Towers apartments and surrounding retail buildings, he does not own the plaza itself.

The city is expected to sell it to Hillman for $600,000. A complicated web of leases, liens and agreements has caused lengthy delays, Hillman said, calling it a "legal nightmare." The deal is not final, but the city is letting him begin the renovations though he is assuming risk by doing so. The plans have been approved by the city's Design Advisory Panel, and building permits are ready.

Hillman said he especially wants to improve the entrance to his Charles Towers high-rises. The two towers have separate entrances, but the new design calls for a single domed entry.

Hillman also hopes to revive an ailing retail scene. Much of the first-floor retail space ringing the plaza is vacant. Remaining tenants include a dry cleaner, a coffee shop, a food court and two shops on Saratoga Street. The second-floor offices have been vacant since late 2000, when the Johns Hopkins University moved its downtown campus.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp., said: "The retail portion has been shown in large measure not to work very well over the course of its life. It's time to produce retail developments on a very important corner in downtown Baltimore that look better, work better and can be done."

The work will be done in phases, and the food court will remain open throughout.

The first phase will include the new apartment lobby, which will fill in the plaza area farthest from Charles Street.

That phase also will include the construction of a 10,000-square- foot mini-grocery operated by Leo's, a small New York chain. Hillman said the market, which he hopes will open by the end of the year, will be akin to a Sutton Place Gourmet but not as expensive.

The proposed high school -- an Academy of Finance and an Academy of Travel and Tourism -- would occupy classrooms formerly used by Hopkins. Hillman said it would open with 125 or 150 ninth-graders in the fall.

Whether the school will open is unclear. Prominent business leaders raised strenuous objections last week, saying it would create too much congestion and hurt existing businesses.

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