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Report says city must change strategy to turn around west side

Urban Land Institute calls for residential rather than retail development of the Howard St. district, questions Superblock “big-box” priorities.

Above: Spiffy slogans (“The West Has Zest”) can’t mask the district’s economic tailspin.

On the surface, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake followed the advice of the prestigious Urban Land Institute yesterday.

She appointed a new development “czar” to coordinate efforts to revitalize the west side of downtown and formed a task force, co-chaired by herself and the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore, to monitor progress.

Both ideas were recommended by a team of urban experts to jumpstart the long-stalled efforts to rejuvenate a 24-square-block area anchored by Howard and Lexington streets. The team’s $120,000 report, commissioned by the mayor last October, was released yesterday.

On a deeper level, though, the report by the Land Institute implicitly challenged some of the mayor’s assumptions about how to revitalize the onetime retail center of Baltimore.

Chief among them is her support of the Lexington Square project located at the Superblock site at Howard and Lexington streets.

The $150-million project seeks to restore Howard St. as a regional retail “destination” replete with big-box stores for national chains such as Bed, Bath & Beyond.

The mayor has made winning city and state approval of the project – controversial because of its teardown of historic buildings – her top development priority.

Yesterday’s report is carefully worded when it comes to what should happen next, procedurally, with the Lexington Square project:

“The panel recommends that either the project be developed by the current developer with the approval of the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) or the land disposition agreement be dissolved.”

While the MHT’s executive director, J. Rodney Little, approved the project, the agency’s board of directors said it disagreed with Little’s action but was legally unable to rescind his approval, according to the Maryland Attorney General’s office.

This bit of backstage intrigue sets up a scenario that the Superblock plans will still have to go back to the agency for approval.

More recently, the project received preliminary approvals from the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) and Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel (UDARP).

These pre-Civil War rowhouses on West Baltimore St., slated for demolition as part of the Superblock project, would be prime candidates for a homebuying program recommended by the Urban Land Institute. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

These pre-Civil War rowhouses, slated for demolition as part of the Superblock project, would be prime candidates for a homebuying program recommended by the Urban Land Institute. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

As currently conceived by the developer, more than a dozen buildings designated as historically significant will be torn down in part or full, in what preservationists consider a violation of a 2001 written agreement between the city and MHT.

The plan, for example, does not fully preserve the former Read’s Drug Store building, site of a historic 1955 civil rights sit-in. Instead, parts of the exterior walls will be saved, angering CHAP commissioner Helena Hicks, civil rights activist Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham and several other black leaders. And Superblock is still essentially a single-developer project, to be anchored by big-box retail.

The Land Institute’s 36-page report recommends moving in a very different direction.

Focusing on Residential Use

In no uncertain terms, the report says that large-scale retail is not supported by market realities. In fact, trying to push this concept has led to repeated delays of redevelopment on the west side.

Based on the Land Institute’s market analysis, major retailers will bypass the district because its location is too close to other retail centers, such as the Gallery at Harborplace, and because there are better entertainment or recreational draws elsewhere.

“The Westside has been marginalized by clusters of competition at the Inner Harbor, suburban malls and other neighborhood main streets with a stronger residential base,” the report said.

“In the past, Baltimore’s retail core was focused on parallel lines along Charles and Howard streets. Now, customers’ existing shopping habits prohibit the return to those shopping patterns.”

As a result, the report recommended more limited retail development focused on serving the needs of residents and University of Maryland employees and students. Because of the area’s disinvestment and large number of vacant buildings, basic services, such as a supermarket and general clothing stores, are now absent from the district.

Such retailing could develop organically if the city focuses on the west side’s greatest potential – as a residential community. The report estimated that the district could easily support 2,000 new units by attracting young couples, professionals, students and others eager to live in an urban setting.

Detail of a rehabbed building on Fayette St. in the west side redevelopment district. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Detail of a rehabbed building on Fayette St. in the west side redevelopment district. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Small Projects Best

“Residential rather than retail development will lead the Westside renaissance” is the report’s conclusion.

But traditional urban renewal techniques will not be successful on the west side, the report cautioned. Instead, “this area needs to be stitched back together through a granular, block-by-block effort rather than with mega-projects.”

The city should develop an aggressive program for getting city-owned properties into private hands, so they can be restored, the report said. Homeownership should be made a priority, with programs set up to help families pay for rebuilding old rowhouses or turning vacant office spaces into lofts.

The task force specifically called on the Baltimore Development Corp. to stop awarding large parcels of land to a single developer, who then sits on the project.

“BDC must get city-owned properties onto the market in small packages at the block level, generating activity with a number of smaller developers,” then step away from the real estate market and let private enterprise take over “without the need for continued public involvement and subsidies,” the report said.

These recommendations essentially follow the redevelopment of Fells Point and South Baltimore, where hundreds of vacant city-owned houses were sold to “urban pioneers” in the 1970s, turning downtrodden districts into highly desirable neighborhoods.

Or as the Land Institute put it, “Baltimore has traveled this road before and been successful.”

Beautiful Bones

The building blocks for the west side’s rejuvenation are readily available – what the task force called its “bones,” or vast stock of solid, often beautiful 19th-century buildings.

The west side can most efficiently be regenerated by using its existing resources, the task force argued, noting that the area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making three tiers of historic tax credits available to developers. Some of the development work has been started, including the restoration of the Hippodrome Theatre and former Stewart’s Department Store.

The city can aid historic preservation by earmarking vacant or underused parcels for new construction, or converting the land to much-needed public spaces and parks. The city needs to develop a formula for evaluating the costs and benefits of rehabilitating old buildings to better understand the trade-offs between new development and historic preservation.

A final point was emphasized by the report – combating the perception and reality of crime. The task force cited Lexington Market as suffering from drug-related crime that needs to be combated by increased police presence and better monitoring of clients at drug treatment centers.

The task force was chaired by Glenda E. Hood, the former mayor of Orlando, Fla., and included seven experts in urban planning and real estate. The group shared some of its preliminary findings last December at a public meeting and submitted its report to Mayor Rawlings-Blake some time ago.

Rawlings-Blake released the report yesterday after announcing the appointment of Brian Greenan, a state transportation planner, as Baltimore’s “Westside Coordinator.”

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