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Here's why downtown Baltimore isn't bustling

New development will add shops and restaurants to Pratt Street downtown. The glassy pavilion will be in front of the Transamerica building.

Nearly 10 years have passed since city leaders first announced a plan to reinvigorate Baltimore’s ailing central business district by converting underused office space into apartments. As 2019 begins, there can be no doubt that a residential boom has occurred. Scores of aging office towers just north of the Inner Harbor have been converted to high-end residences, including 10 Light Street, 2 Hopkins Plaza, 301 North Charles Street and the recently opened 225 North Calvert Street apartments. Thousands now live in downtown’s historic core, recently rebranded by the residents themselves as “City Center,” making it one of the fastest-growing and most diverse neighborhoods in the country.

But has the residential influx had its intended effect? Is Baltimore’s old downtown now reinvigorated?

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If 2018’s headlines are any indication, then the answer is a resounding “no.”

Random acts of violence still plague residents and visitors alike, and the appearance of City Center streets and sidewalks leaves much to be desired. Central downtown’s retail market is stumbling as well; 2018 witnessed a spate of high-profile store and restaurant closings — including Urban Outfitters, M&S Grill, Brio Tuscan Grille, Alewife gastropub, and The Bun Shop’s Light Street location.

So, why aren’t the streets of City Center a bustling destination now that thousands of people call downtown home? If you ask the residents, three themes emerge:

First, high-rise living itself — despite the great views — has the unfortunate effect of isolating residents from their neighbors and from the streets below. With luxury “amenities” including rooftop pools, indoor dog parks, a system of high-tech package lockers (for all your online delivery needs), and weekly on-site social hours for residents and their friends, some buildings actually advertise that tenants “never have to leave.” This is not the message we should be sending, as City Center’s success relies on attracting more feet to the streets. Neighborhood stakeholders, including apartment managers themselves, must give serious thought to how we accomplish this. Street-level events, including this year’s wildly successful “Charm City Night Market” and community meet-ups sponsored by the Downtown Partnership and others, are a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

Second, while private developers have dramatically transformed apartment interiors, the city, state, and other stakeholders have been less than diligent about upgrading the appearance and functionality of streets and sidewalks connecting these buildings. Residents lament City Center’s broken street lamps, potholes, grimy alleys, busted curb cuts and empty planters — not to mention the gigantic “pit” at Baltimore and Charles streets, now nearly five years in the making. In the words of one resident, “You don’t see this in Harbor East.” City and state-owned properties can be some of the worst offenders. Mangled metal and a temporary plywood barrier fastened to the side of Schaefer Tower at Baltimore and Light streets still mark the site of a vehicle collision that occurred there months ago. Residents report that busted bus shelters and street lights have taken officials equally long to address. The message this sends: We don’t really care. Why should area residents feel any differently?

Finally, crime has reached a boiling point in City Center, and no one seems to have a serious solution. A friend and recent medical school graduate was walking alongside the Walgreens at Fayette and St. Paul Streets a few weeks back when he spotted a group of kids coming toward him. He didn’t think much of it, but as they passed by, he felt a fist pound his jaw. He fell to the ground, his glasses went flying, and he ended up with serious damage to his teeth. These “sucker punch” attacks by city youth are nothing new and have now plagued the neighborhood for years. Couple this with the “squeegee kid” epidemic, and regular reports from residents of their violent attacks on motorists, and it’s no wonder that many are frustrated. Sadly, some have already said “no thanks” to City Center and are looking elsewhere for their next home.

It’s been said that a city is only as strong as its core, and the time to get serious about ours is now. Residents have formed their own community association, the City Center Residents Association, and business and property owners announced the creation of a new group last month to address the safety and appearance of central Downtown. This new year is shaping up to be a now-or-never moment for this community in transition.

Bill King is a Baltimore lawyer and president of the City Center Residents Association. Email: president@citycenterresidents.org; Twitter & Instagram: @bmorebillking.

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