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Renaissance for North Avenue as arts district

When Christa Daring was a student, she rode a bus from her Waverly home and crossed North Avenue on her way to classes at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

"This was always oh-so no-man's land," she said of the commercial crosstown street that is taking some convincing steps this spring as an arts district.

She stood in the old North Avenue Market building, where she and fellow members of the Red Emma's Bookstore and Coffeehouse collective will be moving from Mount Vernon to a much enlarged space.

As she walked me through a spot once occupied by a Read's drugstore and soda fountain, she explained how a 75-seat vegan-vegetarian restaurant and bookstore will open later this year at the corner of Maryland and North.

"Our menu will be inexpensive, affordable," she said, "and as much locally sourced as possible. I am really excited at our interior, a sort of Art Deco industrial."

She said she's thinking of the preserving of foods that can be accomplished here. She'll also be fermenting sauerkraut.

Then she pointed to the matrix of steel and wood beams supporting the former market's upper reaches, partly exposed when an old ceiling was pulled down.

"Look at it," she said.

The street's current renaissance is not obvious. North Avenue still plays the part of the urban stepchild, with boarded-up buildings, graffiti and random parking lots.

But don't be fooled. The work is going on behind facades and plywood construction barriers. And it's had some successes, such as the $20 million renovation of the Maryland Institute College of Art's Graduate Student Center in what had been the Morgan millworks and later the Jos. A. Bank plant.

"North Avenue is going to be one dynamic stretch," said Carolyn Frenkil, a co-owner of the North Market building. "It's an awakening."

While Frenkil and her business partner, Mike Shecter, have peeled away some of the coverings that marked the market's original architectural finery, they have invested more in fire and safety corridors and other behind-the-scenes improvements.

They have worked gradually, adding new tenants, including the Wind Up Space, Liam Flynn's bar and the Baltimore Print Studio. Red Emma's will occupy the western flank of what was once a privately owned market filled with butchers, green grocers and seafood purveyors.

Another Charles and North landmark, the 1939 Centre Theatre, remains empty — but not for long.

"This project has good karma. It is getting the breaks," said developer Charles B. Duff, the president of Jubilee Baltimore. "I fully expect to have a completed building in 2014."

He says there will be two restaurants with table seating on the wide North Avenue sidewalk. He has secured $3 million in historic tax credits. Both MICA and the Johns Hopkins University will be leasing space in the former film house for an academic program in film studies.

While on my North Avenue walk this week, I did not notice the fourth story being added atop the roof of the old Bickford cafeteria building at 5 E. North Ave. Then I climbed to this amazing aerie.

Architect Sergio Martinez left Washington to buy this structure, which is diagonally across from the North Avenue Market.

"These old buildings were built with a tremendous amount of integrity," Martinez said.

He's allowed his design imagination to take over here. The first floor, where diners once tucked into mashed potatoes and hot beef, will become the Fat Pig art gallery.

"I saw the fantastic things happening here," he said. "I saw the blight, too. I decided to make a claim. I am amazed at the number of artists who live here."

Martinez bought the Bickford place two years ago, after it had become a check-cashing operation. He also inherited a structure filled with asbestos and with a leaky roof. He says an opening that once vented cooking grease will become a circular window.

"In the city, it's all about recognizing these jewels and gems," he said. "I am living the artist's dream here."

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