Cambridge sees a downtown revival

The Baltimore Sun

CAMBRIDGE -- Developer Brett Summers and restoration contractor Thom Huntington say they started from the top down, with a scrap of the original decorative cornice that had stretched across the front of the landmark McCrory's building.

Months of searching led them to a company that replicated the ornate crowning piece, and they were on their way - one meticulous detail at a time - to restoring the old downtown five-and-dime store.

After decades of decline, investors and renovators such as Summers and Huntington seem to be everywhere these days in Cambridge's 50-block business district.

They are scraping away chipped paint and demolishing clumsy add-on facades and awnings to unveil stalwart old buildings they say could boost the faint heartbeat of the downtown district that once was the seafood and canning capital of the Eastern Shore.

"All the right factors seem to be focusing on downtown Cambridge," says Summers, a Washington-based developer who moved his young family here three years ago. "A lot of people are realizing that this is a charming place with a downtown that should be a tremendous asset."

Most of the attention here lately has gone to a 3,200-unit development near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (which was significantly reduced by state regulators) and a batch of other annexations nibbling around the edges of this faded industrial town. The business district began falling on hard times with the construction of nearby U.S. 50 in the 1950s, but many expansive houses in the city's west end district underwent renovation in the last decade.

Downtown, nearly a dozen restoration projects have begun or have been completed on some of Cambridge's architectural centerpieces - including the 96-year-old Phillips Packing Co. headquarters, the 115-year-old Nathan's furniture store and a 121-year-old three-story building on Poplar Street that some remember as a longtime confectionery.

The McCrory's building now has hand-crafted 10-foot mahogany doors installed at street level, original pressed tin that covers 14-foot ceilings and beaded-board walls that are featured in a space Summers hopes will house an upscale 110-seat restaurant - one of five or six planned for the downtown area.

Seven luxury apartments are almost finished on the second and third stories of the McCrory building. The original flooring was a casualty of renovation, but custom-made steel girders help the original huge wood beams support the weight of modern sprinklers in the ceilings.

"Right now, we're working in four buildings with 26 apartments, and we're looking at more," Summers said. "You need that residential element and some office space and businesses. But restaurants are really the anchors for any downtown."

Gage Thomas, a Cambridge native and prominent real estate broker, is renovating the former confectionery building that also served for many years as a Masonic Hall. Thomas is planning a Greek restaurant on the first floor of the building that also housed his father's real estate office.

It's exactly the kind of thing that residents would have scoffed at even a few years ago. Not so any more, says Thomas, a Cambridge native.

"I have an emotional attachment to this building, but it's obvious what we need is critical mass for restaurants and shops that would draw people into downtown," says Thomas. "It's almost a situation where the more you have for people to experience, the more they'll come. I think we're approaching that as more people have invested in downtown."

The 400-room, six-story Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort opened along the Choptank River five years ago. Since then, local leaders and hotel management say they have been trying to draw guests across the tangle of traffic, fast-food restaurants and gas-and-go convenience stores that line nearby U.S. 50 and into downtown.

The city's four-year-old Main Street Maryland program, one of 18 in the state - including four on the Eastern Shore - has helped build momentum for revitalization projects. Cambridge has received technical help, marketing and planning advice through the program, as well as grant money for $450,000 in streetscape work.

State tax credits and other incentives available to property owners in the Main Street program can save as much as 40 percent of building costs, says Liddy Garcia-Bunuel, Cambridge's Main Street coordinator.

"We are at a tipping point now, said Garcia-Bunuel. "After several years of working a lot behind the scenes, we have so much significant restoration and renovation happening that you can't go back. One of our next steps is actively recruiting business to come here."

Beyond luring new businesses, the Main Street program is working to begin restoration efforts in nearby residential neighborhoods, Garcia-Bunuel says.

David Harp, a photographer who opened a storefront for his work years ago, serves as president of the Main Street program's board of directors. He says the business district has already helped foster artists and small retailers.

"We know the postal carrier and the police officers; we can walk to get lunch or go to a shop," says Harp, a former photographer at The Sun. "I love the pedestrian landscape."

Victor McSorley, a Cambridge native who lives in St. Michaels and specializes in historic restoration work, has invested $750,000 in the former Nathan's furniture building, a landmark retail store for decades.

The place now has 12-foot floor-to-ceiling windows and storefront display cases designed to allow furniture displays to change regularly, McSorley said. Attention to historic detail is coupled with fiber optic wiring and high-speed cable service.

"I've owned this building for 20 years and this is the type of work that I do," McSorley said. "I couldn't degrade this building with a drop ceiling or acoustic tiles. With everything that's happening, Cambridge is going to be known for this kind of quality."

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