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Downtown renewal easing to the north

At Baltimore and Eutaw streets, you will find a powerhouse redevelopment lineup led by the Hippodrome Theatre's $62 million revival and Bank of America's $80 million Centerpoint complex of shops and apartments.

Three blocks north on Saratoga Street, you've got Hany's Hardware, $6,000 and counting.

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Elhamy Ibrahim, or "Hany" to friends, is opening the tiny hardware store at 212 W. Saratoga St. An effervescent Egyptian who insists on giving guests a seat and a cup of coffee, he sees the planned shop as his small contribution to jump-starting the once-thriving commercial strip.

"I want to bring people back to downtown," he said the other day, surrounded by three cats and a mutt named Max. So far, he has spent $6,000 to turn the ugly facade into a handsome peach-and-blue storefront.

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Despite all the talk about "the west side," the core 20-block area is no monolith. More and more, there are two west sides downtown. In one, government and corporations are investing several hundred million dollars. In the other, farther north, change comes a storefront at a time, if at all.

Most major redevelopment is occurring south of Lexington Street. Signs of change are less evident on Ibrahim's 200 block of W. Saratoga.

Marketing executive Clifford Hull runs a firm on that block, and when he hears about the big projects to the south, he said, "I feel they're talking about another side of the world."

The division is partly by design. City economic development officials and some boosters say the renewal must be phased in. They say the benefits of new apartments, shops and the theater will ripple north in the form of new development. For now, they say, progress is occurring on a smaller scale.

In the heart of the northern reach - call it the upper west side - the 200 block of W. Saratoga St. offers a case study on what is happening, or not, away from the main action.

A recent visit revealed some surprises on the stretch of Saratoga between Park Avenue and Howard Street. You won't find the flowering west-side renaissance Mayor Martin O'Malley speaks of, but neither will you see a wasteland of boarded-up buildings. The reality is a mix of bleak and bright spots.

The bleak: a few empty storefronts; complaints about drug addicts and petty criminals; and a belief by some merchants that things won't get better, no matter how many people see Broadway shows at the Hippodrome.

The bright: active businesses at most addresses; prettied-up facades on some of the rowhouse buildings; an influx of entrepreneurial immigrants; and, soon, a little hardware store.

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"This is a fascinating block," said Hull, president of North Charles Street Design Organization, which does marketing for colleges around the country.

The firm moved to the block in 1980, leaving Charles Street for a handsome Beaux-Arts firehouse built in 1904. By the time Hull moved in, the block was headed downhill, the result of a middle-class exodus to the suburbs dating to the 1960s.

Recruitment has been hurt by the area's sharp decline, said co-founder Bernice Thieblot, but crime and other problems have been rare. She and her husband raised their son in living space over the office, making for interesting days when his Gilman School chums visited.

This part of Saratoga, like much of the Howard Street corridor, relies on lower-income customers. The corridor was once the city's main retail area.

In 1950, you could buy shoes, furs, jewelry, radios and sporting goods in the 200 block. Services were as varied as embroidery and legal assistance.

Today, there are fewer stores to draw downtown workers or those walking to the light rail or buses. You can't buy shoes on the block, though you can get them fixed. Liquor is among the few goods available, day or night; services are dominated by hair salons.

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Perhaps the most inspiring presence is the 52-year-old Ibrahim. Last week, he was laying tile for the hardware store. He does not expect to compete with Home Depot but thinks he can attract those who need, say, a new key. It's better than another hair-braiding outlet, he said.

"A few years ago, it was nail salons. It died. Now everybody's braiding hair. It's going to die. Hardware stores stay. It gives the neighborhood something," he said.

Ibrahim has leveraged his energy. He is on the board of the Market Center Merchants Association and has tapped a facade improvement program run by the Downtown Partnership.

The site of Hany's Hardware used to have a cage on the front. The bars are gone, and a new paint job has brightened the exterior. The facade program will pay $8,400 of the upgrade if Ibrahim spends the same. So far, he has put up $6,000, said the Downtown Partnership's Mike Evitts.

Around the corner on Park Avenue, Ibrahim plans to open a Middle Eastern grocery serving halal meat, the Muslim version of kosher. That facade has been fixed up.

"I don't want it to be looking like it's an abandoned neighborhood," said Ibrahim, one of the few residents in the 200 block of W. Saratoga.

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Across Saratoga, Ibrahim's bubbly outlook is matched by Anderson Pigatt's cynicism. Pigatt is the type of person O'Malley wants to attract: a sculptor with a studio on one floor, a residence on another. He lives the 24/7 life that city officials promote.

Behind a door, an arched passage leads to a courtyard like those in New Orleans. Another door leads to Pigatt's rented hideaway, where his African-themed sculptures eye one another.

Pigatt, 75, calls Ibrahim the block's "leading citizen," but he himself may be its leading doubter. He scoffs at the hardware store.

"That's not going to help the community because there is no community," Pigatt said in a scratchy voice. "Nobody is going to come from Owings Mills to go to a hardware store on Saratoga Street."

Nor does he expect much from the Hippodrome. By "catering to Caucasian people," it will do little for an area where most people out and about are black, he said. And he doubts new apartments will keep tenants, despite strong occupancy rates at places such as the Atrium on Howard Street.

"As fast as they move in, they're going to move out," he said, waving his hands. "What's going to keep them there?"

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Russian immigrant Alex Shkolnik shares Pigatt's doubts. He opened a shoe repair shop on the block 15 years ago and caters to downtown workers. But last week he idly sat watching The Price is Right on a small black-and-white television set.

"Right now it's not good, no customers," he said. What the area has, including homeless people and addicts visiting nearby treatment centers, he said he could do without.

"They need to do something to bring people back downtown to shop," he said. He doesn't know how. "It's not easy."

The block recently lost two stalwarts. Zimmerman's Comfort Shoes closed its 56-year-old Saratoga Street store, and Hyman Levy shuttered the Brass Towne brass shop that he long ran.

At My Barber Shop, owner Cardoza Jacks took a more measured view.

Jacks, 36, said the hair business is fine, but he bemoaned the lack of variety in the area. Too many perfume shops, pager stores, junk-food joints and, yes, barbers - but no cafes, bookstores or florists.

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"Look what we're spending our money on," Jacks said, referring to his fellow African-Americans. "Can't we get some serious stuff down here?"

West-side boosters say there is progress. A long-delayed housing and retail project in the 400 block of Howard should go ahead this year, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. The city is also working to renovate two buildings on Park.

And a lawyer has moved to the 100 block of W. Saratoga, said Robert Dengler, a Downtown Partnership vice president.

Dengler's boss, Michele Whelley, disputed the contention of two west sides. She said that her group is focused on "the entire neighborhood" and that in coming years Saratoga will get new sidewalks, curbs, lights and benches.

Others say the appearance of two west sides is hardly surprising. A west-side plan done for the city in 2000 recommended a phased-in approach, starting in the south.

"You can't do everything at one time," said Ron Kreitner of the nonprofit business group WestSide Renaissance.

For the record

An article in Monday's editions about development on Baltimore's west side incorrectly spelled the last name of Clifford Lull, president of the North Charles Street Design Organization.


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