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Merchants miss the bus


For as long as most folks could remember, the No. 23 bus ran along Saratoga Street - bringing East and West Baltimore together in the heart of the old downtown shopping district.

Then last October, the Maryland Transit Administration moved the bus route to Fayette and Baltimore streets. It was a shift of only three or four blocks, seemingly one of the less drastic changes in the Ehrlich administration's overhaul of the city bus system.

But for the merchants of Saratoga Street and others in the Market Center area of downtown, the move has been a brutal lesson in the Law of Unintended Consequences, siphoning customers out of their neighborhood.

The change threatens to bring blight to one of the city's most diverse shopping corridors, a place where native-born entrepreneurs and immigrants from around the globe run an eclectic mix of businesses catering to low-income bus riders. Some businesses have closed since October; others are planning to shut down.

"Without the 23 back here, I guarantee that 50 percent of the business owners here will close their doors in the next six months," said Elhanmy "Hany" Ibrahim, who is rallying his fellow merchants to demand the restoration of the bus to Saratoga Street and to stave off other possible changes to downtown service.

The MTA says it certainly didn't intend to harm business.

Beth Kreider, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning and policy, said the No. 23 was moved to Fayette and Baltimore in an effort to consolidate service and provide more frequent service in a busy corridor.

She says the MTA made adjustments to some of its original proposals for the No. 23, which runs from Catonsville to Essex, but not its downtown rerouting.

"We didn't hear an overwhelming outcry about service on Saratoga Street during the comment period," she says.

MTA officials will meet with merchants tomorrow morning to hear their concerns. "We just have to listen and see how it all comes together as a big picture," Kreider says.

Store owners say they were blindsided by the October route changes. The turmoil in the neighborhood has helped spark reports of other potentially harmful moves, including a rumored MTA decision to take the only remaining bus on Saratoga, the No. 15, off the street in the next round of changes.

Kreider says that is not true.

The aftermath of the No. 23's move is an illustration of the pitfalls of tinkering with an established bus system, no matter how quirky or seemingly outdated. Even what seems to be a minor adjustment can have consequences to people's livelihoods.

Ibrahim, a board member of the Market Center Merchants Association, estimates that business in the upper downtown area is down 40 percent because of the loss of the No. 23. The Egyptian immigrant says business is down 85 percent at his tiny hardware store and 70 percent at his larger hosiery store in the 200 block of W. Saratoga St.

At the Cobbler Shop, where Russian immigrant Alex Shkolnik operates one of the few remaining shoe-repair businesses downtown, business is suffering.

"I don't understand why they want to kill business here," says Shkolnik, who says his trade is off 50 percent to 60 percent since the MTA moved the No. 23.

Around the corner on Howard Street, a sign in the window of Universal Electronics says "Everything Must Go: Going Out of Business."

Owner Eddie Nadif, an Israeli immigrant, says the loss of the No. 23 cost him half his business. He's planning to remodel his current space into four units, but he worries that the MTA's plans to move the No. 19 and No. 27 routes off Howard Street in June could complicate his efforts to find tenants.

"It's not a clientele who have cars," Nadif says. The light rail operates right outside his window, but it merely brings customers past his shop, he says. Buses bring customers to the door.

At Ace Currency Exchange on Park Avenue, owner Wendy Bendebba says she has seen a 30 percent drop in her business, which includes a check-cashing service, since October. She said the uphill walk from Fayette and Baltimore streets deters many elderly customers.

"To us it's not a steep hill, but it's a steep hill for them," she said.

The 23's move is also being felt by some of the stall operators in Lexington Market - especially those whose businesses are close to Eutaw Street.

Michael Papantonakis, who has run the Utz potato chip stand at the market for 35 years, says the move cost him 35 percent of his business.

"That bus stop meant a lot out front," he says. "I don't see people who used to come here for years."

Agnes Anderson, owner of the Bible Store on Park Avenue, says she moved to that location when she was forced to leave Eutaw Street for west side redevelopment. Now she laments a 45 percent drop in sales since the No. 23 moved.

Like most other merchants, Anderson was taken by surprise by the route change. She says she never heard about last summer's public hearings and received no notification from the MTA about its plans for the No. 23.

Linda Frangioni, president of the Market Center Merchants Association, says she learned of the proposed changes only a few weeks before they were implemented.

"Nothing was sent to me," she says. "There was no correspondence from the MTA whatsoever."

The MTA's Kreider says the agency did extensive outreach before last summer's public hearings on changes, which the agency calls the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative. It used radio, TV and newspaper ads in addition to notices on buses, she says: "We really tried to cover the area."

The shift of the No. 23 from Saratoga Street has been unpopular among many riders interviewed by The Sun.

Marion Samuels of Edmondson Village, who works near Saratoga, says she now has to walk down to Fayette to catch a No. 23. At 58, she doesn't find it an easy walk - and she's not happy with the "terrible" service on the route since the restructuring.

Dan Pontious, policy director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, can look out his office window and see the traffic pass by on Saratoga Street. He says the neighborhood's problems show that the MTA needs to be mindful of the economic impact of its actions.

Pontious says the MTA has been using a flawed process.

"What they've done so far is they put out the formal proposals and then they do their outreach," he says. "People depend on this service, and they should reach out to these folks before they propose specific changes."

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