I always find it to be an interesting ride when I take Charles St. from South Baltimore to Mt. Vernon. SoBo is so alive, Federal Hill is so alive, Inner Harbor is so alive and then all of a sudden things become lifeless in the Central Business District (Pratt to Saratoga area) before things start to spring back to life again when the Mt. Vernon influence begins. Things just seem to fall apart for those approximate five blocks.
Our downtown is mapped by a one-mile radius from the corner of St. Paul and Light St. The are includes 31,000 residents and 113,000 jobs. The specific areas in that radius that need to reinvent themselves to keep up with the surrounding neighborhoods are City Center (or Central Business District) and Westside. While City Center is home to many tall buildings and big companies, it has the feeling that you are there to work 9-5, Monday-Friday before getting out of dodge immediately afterwards. The streets feel cold and dark from the shade of the tall buildings and lack of green space. There also seems to be more storefronts telling you about all the great things in Baltimore instead of being one of the great things in Baltimore. This may be acceptable for many cities, but for an American city with the 8th most downtown residents and the 17th most jobs, the City Center needs to keep up with the Joneses, first names Harbor East, Mt. Vernon and Federal Hill.
When Exelon, who will take over for Constellation, decided to move to Harbor Point in Harbor East, many people thought it was a big blow for City Center. I disagree, however. The last thing we need in City Center is a giant new headquarters in which 66% of the workers will escape with their money to the surrounding counties at the end of each day. What City Center desperately needs is residents. Projects at 1 Light St., 414 Light St. and Baltimore City Community College all stopped progress on potential residential and mixed-use projects to flirt with Exelon. Thankfully they were all still alone at the punch bowl. Harbor Point will get the boost they were finally waiting for and City Center can focus on creating vibrancy and becoming a neighborhood – not just a place on the map between Mt. Vernon and Federal Hill where money is made and exported to Hunt Valley, Severna Park and the other ‘burbs.
Our South Peninsula is a huge success because there are thousands of 24-hour residents and space to stretch out. This is exactly what City Center needs. Restaurants, bars, stores and businesses continue to pop up because there are so many active residents in the South Peninsula to serve. Downtown Partnership of Baltimore is doing their best to bring more residents downtown and to improve – and add – open spaces with parks, trees and improved sidewalks. Filling all the storefronts and adding build-outs to existing buildings is also one of their goals to improve street-level activity.
Currently five residential projects ranging in size are under construction downtown and progress is being made at many more. A project that will really make a big difference is the redevelopment of the Mechanic Theatre at Hopkins Plaza, which is now moving forward. They are hoping to add one or two apartment towers as well as 100,000 sq. feet of ground-level retail space to hopefully lure some residents. They are currently in talks with a major retailer for the site. Downtown Partnership is also pushing for a residential conversion of the PNC building on Baltimore St., also facing Hopkins Plaza. The plaza itself has recently undergone a $7 million renovation.
Trying to prevent a doughnut hole oasis, Downtown Partnership has created a design to tear down the building on the west side of the plaza and create a park space that will open and flow into Westside. On the other side of the proposed opening sits First Mariner Arena, whose Inner Harbor replacement is currently being studied. They are hoping that at least a portion, if not all, of the vacated space will be torn down and made into a creative open space in the heart of downtown. “It has the potential for a Millennium Park [Chicago]-type feel,” said Mike Evitts of Downtown Partnership. Having been to Chicago this summer, I can tell you that Millennium Park is spectacular.
According to the Census, the heart of downtown (North of Pratt, South of Franklin, Greene Street to JFX West to East) is considered Tract 401. Tract 401 is the fastest growing neighborhood in Baltimore. The 401 apartment buildings occupancy rates are in the high 90 percent range. Though capital is hard to come by in this economy, they are working very hard to influence new residential buildings and office-residential conversions. The iconic Bank of America Building (looks like Empire State Building) has high vacancy and is losing one of their biggest tenants to a newer building very soon. Downtown Partnership is working hard with the beautiful building’s owners to recommend a mixed use building of office and retail.
Another problem downtown is “Shadow Leases.” A shadow lease is basically when a landlord is still getting paid every month by a tenant that is no longer in the building. When a company signs a 10-year lease, and leaves at year 7, the landlord still gets 3 years of income creating a vacancy problem. “We are working hard with these building owners to get these spaces filled, and prevent so many shadow leases,” Evitts said.
An area that needs much more help is the northern portion of Westside. The southern portion is very vibrant thanks to a growing University of Maryland and theatre district, which is home to many new apartment buildings. But the Westside comes to a screeching halt a few blocks north. This is highlighted by the eternally stalled Super Block and Lexington Market, which has become an easier place to find drugs than a great crab cake.
The Super Block is proposed to become 312,595 sq. feet of retail space, 400 apartments and 925 parking spaces and is hoping to move forward with development very soon. Stalled by the recession, civil rights activists, the Historical and Architectural Preservation and lawsuits, the Super Block and Baltimore City is hoping to win an appeal in federal court that will move this project forward. If they don’t win, the project will likely fall apart. At that point, it will likely be re-bid or parceled out for development, which could be a huge setback for a crumbling area of downtown. If it does move forward, the city will gain much needed retail space and investors will begin to invest in the surrounding blocks – something unlikely to happen with the Super Block in its current condition.
The historic Lexington Market is also an area in need of much improvement. A notorious area for drug activity, Mayor Rawlings Blake and University of Maryland are committed to cleaning up the area through extra police presence and extra security. Downtown Partnership also has big ideas for the improvement of the area. Trying to again improve open space and walkability of the area, they would like to see the west market of Lexington Market demolished to make way for a nice green space stretching from Paca St. to the east and Pearl St. to the west. This would create great open space that opens it up into the area around University of Maryland. Facade improvements are also recommended for Lexington Market.
Other open space ideas recommended by Downtown Partnership include the space in front of a proposed apartment building at 1 Light St., a renovation of Mercy Hospital’s Preston Gardens at the median of St. Paul St. and more creative, usable space for Jones Falls Park, sight of the Saratoga Farmers Market. The master plan for these open spaces is for the next five to ten years and will rely heavily on public and private partnerships. The city is also currently working on a bicycle path connecting Penn Station and the Inner Harbor and are looking for more build-out retail on streets like Pratt St., hoping bigger spaces can lure bigger stores like Bed Bath & Beyond.
While there is room for a lot of improvement, the Downtown Partnership is hard at work with the city, state and private developers to ensure Downtown Baltimore reaches its potential. “Baltimore is a top ten downtown – things are really happening in this city,” Downtown Patnership’s Kirby Fowler told us. While the economy and shiny new Harbor East buildings may seem like they have left a huge toll, Baltimore’s office vacancy rate is approximately in the middle of the pack compared to other U.S. downtown districts. Baltimore has the 22nd lowest vacancy rate out of the 56 largest downtown districts. This is better than cities like Chicago, Atlanta and Denver. Downtown has also seen a 130% increase in residents since 2000 and Downtown Partnership feels they could add 6,000 more residential units to the area.
Plans are in place and hopefully the economy and a lack of litigation lead to architect renderings becoming construction projects. As soon as the area becomes a great place to work, play and most importantly live, it will be on its way to establishing vibrancy – the biggest thing missing for a few blocks between the Inner Harbor and Mt. Vernon!
PDF’s with renderings