In a recent interview, Mayor Brandon Scott committed to a “total re-imagining” of downtown Baltimore as the city emerges from the pandemic. It’s a message that residents of Baltimore’s City Center have been waiting years to hear. If you ask the growing residential population in Baltimore’s downtown core, they’ll tell you that they are bullish on City Center’s recovery, but it’s only going to work if we take a frank look at where we are and get creative about tackling the problems that have held us back for too long.
City Center is home to world-class assets you won’t find anywhere else. Lexington Market is undergoing a multimillion-dollar overhaul and is set to reopen next year. Combine that with years of hard work and advocacy by the Market Center Merchants Association, and the growing Bromo District arts community, and it becomes clear that downtown’s west side is poised for a resurgence.
The MARC station at Camden Yards has been completely remodeled, making it an attractive and convenient stop for commuters and visitors to the stadiums and other City Center attractions. Many of Baltimore’s finest performing arts venues are located in City Center — Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Everyman Theatre, Center Stage and the Hippodrome. The Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar, which takes place on Sundays under the Jones Falls Expressway, is hailed as one of the nation’s best and busiest. The seats of city, state and federal government in Baltimore are also located in the central business district, and additional state employees will soon begin relocating to City Center from the State Center complex on Preston Street.
City Center is home to some of the city’s finest and oldest architectural marvels, including the iconic 10 Light Street tower, Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower and the historic Mitchell Courthouse. Perhaps most importantly, City Center is home to a growing and engaged residential population (now numbering in the thousands) that is committed to helping re-imagine the neighborhood.
Our challenges are clear. Crime, and the perception that City Center is an unsafe neighborhood, continue to hinder revitalization efforts. From the continued presence of “squeegee kids,” who dominate the corners of Lombard, Pratt and President streets every morning and evening, to the “quality of life” offenses that have been on the rise citywide over the past year. The departure of major stores inside The Gallery and nearby restaurants at the Inner Harbor, even pre-pandemic, has resulted in City Center struggling to establish itself as a shopping and dining destination. Far too many people who live and work in the central business district head to nearby Federal Hill, Harbor East and Fells Point to dine out. The fact that the once grand Inner Harbor shopping and dining pavilions remain in legal limbo, now largely empty and failing, is another problem we cannot ignore.
Thankfully, there is a clear path forward. While great strides have been made in the past year, we must commit to radical steps to fully reinvent City Center. Nothing should be off the table. Some have proposed that the city should buy the Inner Harbor pavilions or use its powerful toolbox of incentives to strategically push new development to move forward there and at the long-vacant Mechanic Theatre site. We also need to make City Center greener, safer and more pedestrian-friendly — whether that means speed bumps, more visible lining of our crosswalks, improved mass transit options, better bike lanes or (a personal favorite of ours) closing down certain streets to vehicle traffic and creating pedestrian-friendly greenways. In re-imagining downtown, we hope the mayor will also consider ways to improve the flow of car traffic along the main arteries as well as consider the addition of brighter streetscape lighting, both of which would make the corridor more appealing and inviting for residents and visitors alike.
Whatever comes next, the residents of this neighborhood want to be involved with the process and want a seat at the table. Mayor Scott, please work with us to “re-imagine” this neighborhood we all call home.
William King is founder of Baltimore’s City Center Residents Association (www.citycenterresidents.org). This op-ed was written in collaboration with the group’s entire board of directors.