It's been decades since a fire burned out the once-bustling North Avenue Market, where more than 200 vendors hawked meat and seafood, produce and sandwiches. A bowling alley filled the second floor.
And now, say developers who own the distinctive building in a long-deteriorating stretch of midtown Baltimore, it's time for people to start coming back.
A development team that includes a longtime market landlord and the owner of the nearby Charles Theatre building has launched a $1 million project to restore the 1928 landmark, which was built to house the market.
Developers envision a market of a different sort. Plans call for an arts-focused mix of shops, eateries and offices that can become a gathering spot for Charles North, part of the city's emerging Station North arts district.
"You're going to come to North Avenue because it's unique," said Carolyn Frenkil, president of developer Center City Inc. "It may not have the fresh seafood and meats, but it will have the variety."
She said developers are talking with potential tenants. Possibilities for the partially renovated 60,000-square-foot space include a glass blowing company, a bookstore and a cafe.
The first new tenant, The Windup Space Bar & Arts Venue, opened Friday at 10-12 North Ave. and plans to offer up art shows, films and live music along with the cocktails.
"We want to make sure that whatever we do is consistent with arts and entertainment and the promotions of it," Frenkil said. "That's what the district is all about."
The market's revitalization comes at a time when the city is creating a vision and physical development plan for the 100-acre Charles North, bounded by St. Paul Street on the east, 21st Street on the north, Howard Street and Falls Road on the west and the Jones Falls Expressway on the south. Baltimore Development Corp. has hired a team of architects, land planners and real estate specialists to create a plan that would encourage private investment and development.
An initial presentation to a city design panel by the team, headed by BTA+ of Cambridge, Mass., and Matrix Settles of Annapolis and Arlington, Va., showed ideas such as a hotel and retail arcade connected to Pennsylvania Station, parks along the Jones Falls Valley, a 60-story tower with "live-work" condos, blocks of small shops and artists' studios, and a transformation of rundown North Avenue into a boulevard of shops and outdoor cafes.
Frenkil's plans with partner Michael Shecter would go a long way toward realizing some of those goals, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, BDC president. He said the developers met with him some months back to discuss their plans.
He said he told them, "'It sounds great. I hope you get started.' I have confidence they will improve it. It would be a great symbolic message as a symbol of improvement of North Avenue, a building once full of life. It would send a message that North Avenue is starting to show new signs of life and activity."
Frenkil and her husband, Dr. James Frenkil, have owned the building at North and Maryland avenues since 1968, after a six-alarm blaze in August of that year shut down the market for good.
Frenkil and a former partner sold off a portion of the property that extends north to 20th Street for the development of high-rise housing for senior citizens.
The former market reopened in 1974 and over the years has been rented to various tenants, including a McCrory's and Sacred Zion Church, which has relocated to make way for the new project.
Current tenants include a Family Dollar store at North and Maryland - the former site of a Read's Drugstore and not a part of the redevelopment - and a check-cashing outlet, which will be moving after its lease expires, Frenkil said.
Plans for a redevelopment started about two years ago after Frenkil teamed up with Shecter, whose family owns buildings in the 1700 block of North Charles that house the Charles Theatre, Sofi's Crepes and Everyman Theater - which will be moving to larger quarters in the west side's Town Theatre building next year - as well as a parking garage across the street. They formed Center City to take on the project.
"For a long time that neighborhood was going downhill," Frenkil said.
But a couple of years ago, the neighborhood started shifting, she said. New businesses began opening, such as Joe Squared, a pizza restaurant and bar at North Avenue and Howard Street, adding to the already popular stretch of the 1700 block of North Charles.
"We felt ... we probably have the largest single building there in that area," Frenkil said. "It is centrally located.
"If we could renovate it and get the kinds of tenants in there that would attract people to walk on the streets and come in and see things," Frenkil explained, "it would be an anchor for revitalizing a whole lot of the neighborhood and encourage other stakeholders who have property there."
One of the first tenants to buy into that vision is Russell de Ocampo. The Waverly resident had worked in Charles North as a bartender and musician before opening The Windup Space, his first business.
He plans to present half a dozen art shows a year and already, the work of about 10 of his artist friends adorns the walls. He hopes to eventually feature live music and show films.
"This has always been the dead space in between" revitalized areas of Charles North, de Ocampo said yesterday, leading the way through the vast market space next door to his new business. "There is so much potential here."