Kelly: Old downtown Baltimore ready to greet some new arrivals

New sidewalks and paving are being readied outside the new Alexander Brown Restaurant due to open its doors Feb. 4. The debut in this landmark 1901 structure, which survived the Great Baltimore Fire, has provoked much speculation. Can the well-traveled corner of Calvert and Baltimore streets establish itself as a fine-dining destination?

For more than a year, workers have been installing a new basement kitchen and modifying the old Alex. Brown & Sons banking floor into a stylish restaurant and bar. Old portraits and classic Baltimore prints now fill the walls and suggest that this is a gilded temple of Baltimore and Maryland history. There’s an eye-popping original stained-glass circular skylight and enough veined marble and bronzework to fill a fashionable Charles Street church. The formal new restaurant’s dazzling quarters are something to behold.

The building and its location say you are squarely in the old financial downtown, a place of banks, attorneys’ offices, safe deposit boxes, stock tickers and pneumatic tubes.

Years ago the fine dining along Baltimore Street was in hotel dining rooms, and at lunch most workers headed to busy lunchrooms and cafeterias. But in the past few years, the old Merchants Club has reopened as the cozy Chez Hugo and South Street has welcomed La Calle, a substantial Latin restaurant. The Lord Baltimore and the Hotel Monaco with its B&O Brasserie also recall the Baltimore of the O’Neill’s department store epoch.

There’s another downtown change. It is now the home of thousands of residents who occupy apartments at urban addresses such as 2 Hopkins, 10 and 414 Light, 26 South Calvert and 414 Water.

“It’s really the most diverse neighborhood in Baltimore,” said William “Bill” King, the president of City Center Residents Association, the group whose members include the millennials and empty-nesters who have chosen to live in the Old Downtown neighborhood. About 8,000 persons now reside downtown, up from 2,000 in 2010.

“In the Baltimore business district is this amazing population who live in old office canyons,” said King, who founded the organization in 2016.

He and his members praise the historic environment — the classic architecture, the mix of 1920 and mid-century modern — but he says the appearance of the streets and sidewalks remains shabby and needs an infusion of civic pride that will help shine up this place. Individual buildings have been upgraded, but their environment lacks the cohesiveness of other downtowns.

“The old downtown Baltimore was the place to be in the 1970s, but it’s hard to imagine that today,” he said. “We see individual developers and owners doing a great job with trees and landscaping, but it is not consistent.”

“It’s a question of the gum on the broken sidewalks, along with dirt and what we call civic-sponsored graffiti — all those spray-painted lines drawn for utility work. They don't go away, along with the asphalt patches,” he said. “It’s not this way in Bethesda or Harbor East.”

King said he lived in Washington, D.C., while in law school from 2012 to 2015 and watched entire parts of that city transform.

“I witnessed what an urban renaissance should look like in a similar older city,” King said. “The potential is here. We have a great, convenient location on the harbor, and the cultural and civic institutions are here.”

He also see a need for informal restaurants that would add a buzz to the old business district streets.

“City Center lacks a creative, casual dining option like Mount Vernon has at its marketplace and Remington has at R. House,” King said. “It would invigorate what is seen by some as a boring and aging part of the city. It would draw residents out of their buildings and create the street-level community we need.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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