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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Reverse Baltimore’s population slide: Kick the west side into gear

One of the most important dates on the Baltimore calendar for 2019 will be July 9. That is when proposals for what used to be known as The Superblock are due at the city’s economic development agency. The plans presented on or before noon of that Tuesday could represent a significant step toward a stronger, more populous city, and I’ll tell you why.

In March, the Baltimore Development Corp. issued requests for proposals for the purchase and redevelopment of 26 properties on the west side of downtown, thousands of square feet bounded by Lexington Street, Howard Street, Fayette Street and Park Avenue. That sad area, once a thriving retail district, has been waiting for renewal for way too long.

As the so-called Superblock proved too big for a single developer, the BDC took a different approach, bundling properties into three “assemblages” so that any number of qualified developers can bid on one, two or all three. The city, meanwhile, designated two historic districts so that the remaining buildings in the area would be preserved while being put to new use.

The question, as always: Will this approach attract developers and the right kind of development? If it doesn’t work out, then the BDC, at the insistence of the mayor, must come up with a clear vision for the west side.

It has too much potential to be allowed to flounder or fail again.

I’ll go back to a simple premise that I probably described in this space a decade or more ago. Beyond injecting new life into Howard Street — a major thing in itself — renewal of the area would be a huge step toward better connecting downtown’s west side with parts of downtown already thriving and growing. Even as the most recent census showed a loss of population city-wide, downtown saw a bump in residents. That trend developed a few years ago, with old office buildings converted into apartments, and new residential buildings coming online. The one-mile radius of the city center constitutes 4 percent of the city’s geographic territory but now contains 29 percent of its businesses and 35 percent of its jobs.

More of that kind of growth is possible. Eliminate the blight of the old Superblock, repurpose vacant buildings for residential or retail use, or for offices, and soon Charles Center starts to love Lexington Street and, further west, Lexington Market, and just another couple of blocks away, the University of Maryland’s city campus. The theaters, the Hippodrome and Everyman, will benefit. Downtown could see another burst of growth.

In the midst of this is the plan to build a new Lexington Market, one of the most important pieces of the west side puzzle, if not the most important, and I’ll tell you why.

We need bridges. We need bridges inside the city, and bridges from the suburbs to the city, bridges between races and ethnic groups, rich and poor and middle class. Build a new Lexington Market — one that serves the people who already love it, the people who need to love it again, and the people who live downtown and are yet to love it — and it will be that bridge. The plan needs to have this very conscious goal.

Lexington Market should be what Ray Oldenburg, the urban sociologist, calls “a great good place.” Oldenburg pointed out 30 years ago what seemed simultaneously obvious and new — too many Americans, particularly suburbanites, were not enjoying easy access to important “third places,” away from home and away from work, where they can feel they are part of the diverse community around them. Years ago, when I first went to Lexington Market for shopping and for lunch, the place had that feel, especially when there was a blues jam in the Lexington Street Arcade. Lately, not so much.

A friend who until recently worked near the market went there frequently for a sandwich. He was often the only white person in line. But he almost always noticed a fully integrated crowd at the popular Faidley’s Seafood, on the Paca street side of the market. “Put the right mix of food places in there — how about an Attman’s Deli? — and I think you would draw a racially diverse crowd,” he wrote in an email after I started writing about the city’s population losses.

Seawall Development will design a new shed-style market next to the old one, on the present parking lot between Paca and Eutaw Streets. The arcade will go away and turn into an open, terraced plaza. But, cool as the first designs look, the building doesn’t seem as important as what happens inside it. Jon Constable, who will lead the project for Seawall, plans a series of open meetings in the old market — the first one is June 26 at 6 p.m. — to hear what Baltimoreans want in the new one. The idea is to strike the balance between tradition and modern trends, between keeping present customers (and vendors) and attracting new ones.

Constable handed me a draft of Seawall’s plan for engaging the community: “Now, more than ever, Baltimore needs a place that unites us racially, socially, economically, intergenerationally and geographically. Lexington Market, a community-owned, public market in the heart of the city, can be that place. It can serve as a tipping point that unites our city and creates a living example of a diverse, inclusive and equitable Baltimore.”

That sounds high-minded, and it should be. It’s badly needed. The west side has suffered from disinvestment and a lack of imagination for way too long.

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