On walks through Baltimore’s historic downtown shopping district, I once thought its end was near. Buildings along Howard, Liberty and Mulberry sit empty and present a decayed appearance. To have once shopped here — or enjoyed a good dinner or Saturday matinee — only compounds my personal anguish in viewing this neighborhood of bleak abandonment.
It’s a feeling I have known before. I experienced it when blocks of Mount Royal Avenue were condemned for urban renewal in the 1960s. The empty houses boarded up with plywood in Otterbein or Barre Circle in the early 1970s provided a similar show.
And yet, in the late winter light, I could see that the grand buildings that once housed Schellhase’s Restaurant, Hess shoes, Schuster bedding and Minch & Eisenbrey’s furniture retained their good lines. Their elegant 1900 (give or take some years) facades spoke to me. There is a rich fabric of commercial structures here calling out for help, desperately.
Now the Baltimore Development Corp. has announced that it is offering a significant part of the old downtown for sale to the right party. These languishing buildings are being offered to people to renovate as apartments, stores or for other uses.
It’s a tall proposition. I looked around and imagined the possibilities. This area, called Market Center by a previous generation of city planners, and the Bromo Arts District by today’s urban optimists, has been in economic trouble for decades. Customers moved away while the nature of retail shopping evolved in ways that do not involve taking the streetcar downtown.
And yet I could easily envision the right new owners creating a lively working district here that could draw on the energy of the University of Maryland, Mount Vernon, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
There are reasons to believe. I kept walking and spotted the old Coward Shoe building on Howard near Saratoga. Someone has fixed it up. Then I walked a little more and crossed Fayette Street, where Everyman Theatre was promoting its new production of “The Dresser.” Around the corner, the Hippodrome displayed signs for “Book of Mormon.”
I was completely caught off guard when I found my way into a new restaurant, Forno, which opened quietly a few weeks ago. It was surprisingly large and appealing — and a sign that someone has some faith in this neighborhood. Just a block from the landmark Bromo Seltzer tower, Forno is part of the Avalon Centerpoint reconstruction and rebuilding of this part of the neighborhood.
The refurbished Hippodrome opened 10 years ago last month. It might have been more of an economic catalyst to this neighborhood had real estate not collapsed in 2008. I walked along West Baltimore Street, near the theater, and saw national chains like Panera and old friends like the Hippodrome hatters and Samuelson’s Boston Loan office. There’s a PNC Bank branch too. And, come to think of it, a few blocks to the east, renovations continue at the stately 1928 Lord Baltimore Hotel with its restaurant, lobby and ballroom.
I spoke with Kirby Fowler, president of the BDC. He says the Bromo area is ready for takers.
“No idea is a dumb one,” he said.
Perhaps professional developers will understand the city’s request for proposals. I think the area needs more sales promotion and explanation. Many of the structures offered to renovators do not have visible street numbers. I wonder if the working artists, artisans and small-business owners these properties could attract will get the current message.
“The character of the district is significant,” says a statement sheet about the properties. “The time is right for the redevelopment of available Westside properties.”