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Luxury living comes to desolation row

ON TUESDAY morning, workers and various public officials in hard hats will hold a topping-out ceremony 12 stories above the old Crazy John's lunch counter and the El Dorado Lounge. It's important to mention these anchors of decline now because soon no one will remember they ever existed.

In their place comes Bank of America's Centerpoint, a square-block renewal zone, featuring an $80 million, 221-unit luxury apartment tower, a seven-story parking garage, nine restored historic buildings and a new world of shops and restaurants.

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The El Dorado, where exotic dancers entertained amid walls and ceilings made of ornamental pressed tin, makes its latest debut as one of the nine rescued buildings. It was once a toy factory. If city-of-gold imagery is still evoked by the name, its latest iteration in Baltimore will come closer to that allure than ever in the coming months. It's a useful symbol.

And not out of nowhere. The Centerpoint project (bounded by East Baltimore, Howard, Fayette and Eutaw streets) was "on the resuscitation table" more than once as it moved over the last five years or so from vision to concept to this week's topping-out ceremony.

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It's important to consider the chemistry of recovery: millions of dollars from a major national bank; the investment of a pioneering minority developer, Harold A. Dawson of Atlanta; state government tax credits; and the willingness of political leaders to ignore the doubters and insist that luxury living could replace Crazy John's et al. People who can pay rent of $1,800 a month or more are willing now to think of these formerly mean and hopeless streets as home, places to window shop, walk to Lexington Market and see Broadway shows. Yes, hon, we're talkin' Baltimore.

The project began officially in March 1999 when Bank of America saw potential and began what the business world calls "market-making." Maria Miller, a senior vice president, was one of those smiling, not-a-doubt-in-the-world hand maidens, a one-woman sales force capable of simultaneously maintaining the commitment of leaders in Baltimore and Charlotte, home base for Bank of America's community development arm. She says the nontraditional menu of Centerpoint amenities, packaged in "edgy" bare brick, tin and massive wooden beams, has pushed the rental market well above the old mythical ceiling of $1,400 a month.

Ms. Miller and her bank built on the institutional momentum offered by the University of Maryland Law School, the University of Maryland Medical Center and various other employers that could send renters to Centerpoint and other developments in the west-side renewal area. An estimated 27,000 people work or study in this 24-block district, including 5,500 students.

"The university," Ms. Miller observes, "is a huge driver." But drive toward what? Potential was meaningless if people couldn't imagine something beyond bars and pawn shops. Apparently they could. The market, she says, grows stronger, enriched by Camden Yards several blocks south, the old Hippodrome Theater and other projects already thriving nearby.

Piece of development cake, right? Not exactly.

El Dorado wasn't banished in a day. The late James W. Rouse, long before he became one of the nation's clarions of city life, urged Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin to turn the harbor into a jewel. That was more than 50 years ago. There's a tendency of Americans - Baltimoreans, in particular, it is said - to doubt, to grumble and then to expect overnight success.

Other mayors, principally William Donald Schaefer, pushed further - finding ways to invest in parts of downtown where even the El Dorados of the world didn't deign to operate. These projects built belief. They argued against doubt. They were stepping-stones to the west side renewal and beyond.

As always, Annapolis helped. Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman pushed for the historic preservation tax credit, which, along with other help, produced about 10 percent of the financing for Centerpoint. In turn, the bank has helped to pay for renovation of the Hippodrome and for elderly centers in the Harlem Park neighborhood far from the edgy new downtown developments, a Harlem Park school and housing for families. The bank's investment in this city now exceeds $129 million and may not have topped out.

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So when the Centerpoint ceremony ends on Tuesday, Baltimore itself can think more optimistically about its broader resuscitation needs.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.


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