It's just three storefronts now, just half a block with a jewelry/pawn shop, a carryout and a barber shop.
But to city officials, this half a block in the 400 block of W. Baltimore St. is a critical piece for revitalization, a bridge between the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus to the west and the Hippodrome Theatre and Starbucks to the east.
And so the city is pressing the university to put a planned student bookstore, to be managed by Barnes & Noble, at the northeast corner of Baltimore and Paca streets, a move officials hope will inject more energy and visibility to an area undergoing a slow transformation.
Mayor Sheila Dixon has weighed in, calling UMB President David J. Ramsay. And Baltimore Development Corp. officials, along with various downtown revitalization groups, have met with and lobbied university officials.
"It would be good for the university and its image and good for the west side and good for the community," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the BDC. "It would be very lively, visible, and give the store a broader customer base."
University officials had planned to open the bookstore in a new campus center currently under construction in the 600 block of W. Lombard St., said James Hill, vice president for administration and finance.
Putting the bookstore in a building owned by the university would obviously be less costly, Hill said. "It's just a matter of economics," he added.
Still, Hill said, university officials have been in negotiations and discussions with city officials and the developers - A&R; Development Corp. of Baltimore and David S. Brown Enterprises Ltd. - to see if they can find an economically viable solution for the university.
Brodie said the city is looking at offering the university financial incentives, such as low-interest loans, to make the deal more economically viable.
"We're waiting to hear back," Brodie said. "You're hardly going to know the store is there if it's in the student center."
Hill said the university was "very close to making a decision" and will likely discuss it this week.
"That block is important to both the city and the university," said Hill. "That's the link between the university and Centerpoint [apartments] and downtown. It's not the best of blocks on either side of the street, and it's felt that the bookstore presence there would just about complete the whole north side of West Baltimore Street and that block."
The university's bookstore was previously located in the student union building, which is now being rebuilt as a new campus center. In the meantime, the bookstore is in a temporary location on Penn Street.
The new bookstore would have about 10,000 square feet and primarily function as a university store with textbooks but will also include books for the larger community, and likely a cafe section, said Hill. The project is several years from completion.
Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank said the university's expansion "is the strength that makes the west-side transformation possible."
"We view the opportunity for a community bookstore in the heart of a thriving university district as important to the west side today as the Hippodrome and Centerpoint were just a few years back," Frank said. "Building a retail Barnes & Noble represents a unique opportunity to accelerate the transformation of the neighborhood that surrounds UMB's campus."
Downtown boosters agree.
"Overnight, a university bookstore will transform that area into a college town," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "That block is just a little inactive right now," he said. "The additional activity on the street will multiply right before our eyes."
Fowler said there are also plans to transform the south side of the block, owned by the same developers, into a mixed-use complex with residential units, retail businesses, and possibly offices.
A&R; and Brown Enterprises could not be reached for comment.
The owner of Samuelson's Diamonds, the jewelry/pawn shop on the block, said he was unaware of discussions regarding that site and had no comment.
Next door at New Civic, a carryout restaurant with a small dining section, owner Kyong Choe said she had heard talk of a bookstore and is worried about her eatery's future. "I like it here; I've got a lot of regular customers," said Choe, 57, who has run the restaurant for the past 19 years.
Still, Choe said, she's noticed the changes and understands that the city is trying to develop a more upscale area. She just hopes she doesn't get lost in the dust.
"If they all plan, then they should help me with moving," she said. "I was planning for retirement."
Charles Michie, 44, manager of Millennium Cutz 2000, also worries about where he would go. "I would have no problem leaving as long as I stay downtown," said Michie. "All my clients are down here."
He also understands that the block can't stay the same. "You got the dental school and the law school, and now they got the Starbucks and an eatery next door, and luxury condominiums just finished," he said. "You can't have development, then eyesores, then development.
"It's pretty much inevitable," he said of leaving. "What can I do?"
The bookstore would add to a flood of construction continuing on the west side.
A $40 million hotel, apartment and restaurant complex conceived by UMB is set to go up on the northwest corner of Eutaw and Fayette streets. The development will consist of a 140-room Marriott TownePlace Suites hotel, a parking garage, 90 market-rate apartments, a restaurant and retail space, according to preliminary plans.
And the city's long-stalled superblock project is moving forward after resolving all outstanding lawsuits, allowing the start of a development with 400 to 500 market-rate apartments and up to 250,000 square feet of shops and parking.
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