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Hopes to craft a bold vision for Charles North

The Baltimore Sun

A hotel and shopping arcade attached to Pennsylvania Station. A performing arts center operated by faith-based groups. Acres of parks and recreational space along the Jones Falls Valley. A 60-story tower containing two-story "live-work" condos. Four blocks filled with "incubator" shops and studios for artists, artisans and other creative types.

Those are a few of the ideas suggested for revitalizing Charles North, the 100-acre arts and entertainment district centered on Charles Street and North Avenue in midtown Baltimore.

The ideas come from a team of architects, land planners and real estate specialists that the Baltimore Development Corp. hired last year to come up with a "vision and physical development plan" for invigorating the area bounded by St. Paul Street on the east, 21sth Street on the north, Howard Street and Falls Road on the west and the Jones Falls Expressway on the south.

Headed by BTA+ of Cambridge, Mass., and Matrix Settles of Annapolis and Arlington, Va., the team is roughly halfway through its $190,000 study and has begun to present some of its early suggestions to business owners, residents and other area stakeholders. Representatives shared their ideas last week with Baltimore's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel.

Philip Loheed of BTA+ and Craig Purcell of Matrix Settles said the team's goal is to create a bold vision that will make people want to be part of the area, which has been the subject of redevelopment studies for more than 20 years. They said the area has strong potential to be the "next great place" in Baltimore because of its central location, rich mixture of history, culture and arts, and assets such as the train station.

"This is not the edge of the city," Loheed said. "This is the center of a highly successful corridor. In terms of the overall health of the city, it's an area that deserves major investment."

The team does not have a firm timetable for redevelopment or a price tag for improvements. Its preliminary plans call for a mix of uses that could add at least 2 million square feet of residential and commercial space to the area.

Loheed and Purcell said the team is proposing a wide range of ideas to stimulate development, with the hope that some will attract investors and serve as catalysts for additional growth. They say the next phase in the planning effort is to meet with stakeholders and refine their recommendations. A "war room" has been set up inside the old North Avenue Market at North and Maryland avenues for those meetings. The team will also come up with specific development strategies for 12 key sites in the area.

Its early ideas include:

Train station expansion: A hotel and retail complex that would be a new front door to Penn Station for people heading south on St. Paul Street. The proposed location is a surface parking lot owned by Amtrak and bounded by Charles Street on the west, Lanvale Street on the north, St. Paul Street on the east and rail tracks on the south. Elements include a garage for 500 to 600 cars, a hotel with 300 to 500 guest rooms, a shopping arcade and, on the Charles Street side, a park and band shell for outdoor concerts. The building would be connected to the 1911 train station by a new north concourse over the tracks.

Performing space: The Trucian Faiths Forum, a performing arts center operated by faith-based groups. The suggested location is near the northwest corner of North Avenue and St. Paul Street, just west of St. Mark's Lutheran Church. The forum would be surrounded by a meditation garden and series of interfaith chapels.

High-rise buildings: A 60-story tower at the northeast corner of Howard Street and Maryland Avenue, containing two-story "live-work" units, plus commercial space at street level. Six more residential towers, each 20 to 30 stories, were proposed for the district bounded by Lanvale Street on the south, Maryland Avenue on the west, North Avenue on the north and St. Paul Street on the east.

The Backstage District: An area of small-scale shops and galleries, bounded roughly by North Avenue on the north, St. Paul Street on the east, Lanvale Street on the south and Maryland Avenue on the west. The idea is to create "a world of alleys and courts to explore," as in Santa Fe, N.M., or Los Angeles' farmers' market.

Green space: The designers showed how the water's edge along the Jones Falls could be cleaned up, landscaped and linked to the arts district by trails and paths. The idea is to make it more of a recreational amenity, like Millennium Park in Chicago. After seeing the designers' presentation, several members of the design panel questioned the notion of creating a faith-based concert venue when many existing churches in the area are struggling to fill their pews. They also cautioned that the planners shouldn't make their vision contingent on high-rises, because the market for them in Charles North may not be strong anytime soon.

"In my lifetime, we're not going to see any of these high-rises," said M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "If there are going to be major high-rises in Baltimore, they won't be here. They will be on the waterfront."

Loheed said after the meeting that his firm, previously known as Benjamin Thompson Associates, designed Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston in the early 1970s and was told for many years that that project would never happen. But once developer James Rouse signed on and construction was complete, he said, it became one of the most successful urban markets in the country.

Loheed said the hotel proposed for the train station would be a good early project for the area, because it would be a catalyst for incubator space and housing in adjacent blocks. "We need that to be the fire starter, the momentum generator for this entire area," he said.

Loheed added that it will be necessary for city, state and federal officials to help pave the way for redevelopment, as they did for the Howard Street corridor, and that will give the private sector confidence to follow.

"You have to raise the ante. You have to raise the quality of investment," he said. "What we're offering up is a menu of many different projects - little ones, big ones - that together can be part of a collective whole that is Charles North. We're trying to see who's out there and who responds."

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