|Howard Street, perpetually failing to thrive|
The slogan was bestowed in the proud tradition of developers who name their projects after what is no longer there. Indeed, the Westside was once Baltimore's retail core and had all the zest a city at the time could muster.
I arrived in time to witness the last vestiges wither: I saw the last two department stores close at Lexington and Howard and the ailing pedestrian zone ripped out in favor of an equally dead Lexington street with two way traffic and a few parking spaces. I saw an ill conceived bus mall on Howard Street be replaced by a mixed-traffic light rail/ cars street that remains lined with shuttered stores. A lot were refurbished though after Honolulu Harry's Weinberg real estate empire, finally let go of them. I saw two busy and popular intercity bus stations close and be relocated adjacent to the city incinerator, the low income bus riders were considered unwelcome downtown. I saw the city expelling a bunch of businesses so an entire block could be offered up to a real estate developer full of empty promises and a whole series of plans for the Lexington Market generated and nixed again. I saw a prominent developer demolish a bunch of buildings waving glorious reconstruction plans, only to leave to big holes west of Charles Street, still no change in sight.
The Incomplete list shows, that not so brilliant city decisions and lack of of oversight plays a role in the absence of really amazing progress, even though Camden Yards, the Convention Center expansion, the Hilton Convention Center Hotel, CenterPoint and the Hippodrome Theatre were built, all projects which were anticipated to give the old retail area a shot in the arm. The late developer David Hillman tried his luck with the adaptive reuse of the former Hechts department store on one end and the old BGE headquarters on the other, both remarkable projects in themselves, but separated by the ill fated "superblock" which dragged them both down. Whatever investments, no matter how large, remained islands in a sea of unabated disinvestment.
|Weinberg properties on Lexington Street: Demo everything|
When my employer, the architecture firm of Cho, Wilks and Benn left Charles Street for West Saratoga Street for what is now known as the MAP building, there was hope and optimism in the air. Kurt Schmoke had just been elected Mayor and hopes were high that Baltimore would amplify its newly gained Inner Harbor luster and also turn around the moribound retail district.
Alas, it didn't happen. One crisis chased the other, some were home-made (Schmoke never really gained the traction everyone had expected), some were national, chiefly with Ronald Reagan beginning a long period in which the government was seen as the problem and not the solution.
Those things are not inevitable. In the same time the Westside largely languished, Cincinnati, another city hard hit by de-industrialization, turned its similarly structured, and possibly even more decayed, historic Over the Rhine area into a stunning success story.
Why did it work in Cincinnati and not here? Baltimore never mustered the urgency with which the mayor and the business community there came together after their own civil unrest; it, too caused by the death of a black man killed by police. There they didn't just talk, but they also acted and assembled the funds needed to turn an entire part of the city around. Their streetcar was never seen as the thing that killed the street but as a train that brought in new energy. There they were very clear what they wanted: Revitalization with equity. Not demolition but restoration, not gentrification but affordable housing, not national chain stores but local mom and pop retail. They wanted a vibrant mixed use community with parks and pools, restaurants and shopping and plenty of housing for all income levels, especially low incomes.
|Four Ten Lofts: New Apartments on Eutaw and Mulberry|
By contrast, Baltimore could never come up with a cohesive vision and funding plan for the Westside. Was it supposed to be a new residential neighborhood, a restaurant district, a collection of unique mom and pop storefronts, an arts and entertainment district or a big transit and event center? Leaders usually opted for "all of the above".
The Weinberg Foundation dreamed of Harlem USA as a model and envisioned lots of demolition, a multi-plex movie theater and large national brand stores. Preservationists were rightly outraged, the area is full of beautiful historic architecture. BDC then developed its own masterplan that can best be described as middle of the road. Some demolition, some big stores, some small stores and plenty of new dwelling units. The squabbles over preservation or demolition continued. though, so did the different aspirations regarding the type of retail that should be here. Those in charge seemed to agree usually that the retail that thrived in the area, beauty and nail salons, barbershops and stores that sell luggage and cellphone plans, was inferior or undesirable. That always seem racist in a not too subtle way.
Developers were supposed to introduce their own visions, further exacerbating the dissonant cacophony. Urban renewal plan amendments, big renewal development projects and projects billed as catalytic came down the pike in regular intervals. Some dubbed a success, such as CenterPoint, a full block sized urban infill with some restored old buildings and many bland new ones. The project was supposed to bracket the new Hippodrome. At the time State Senator Barbara Hoffman had skillfully forced some preservation by linking Hippodrome funds to an now defunct "memorandum of Agreement" that classified the many historic buildings as "must be preserved", should be preserved" and "are dispensable". Weinberg's properties north of Lexington Street and east of Stewart's were exempted from the three part classification and subsequently all demolished. To this day nothing replaced the grassy lots. The Westside is still a child that is "failing to thrive".
|The Mayfair: decay from neglect always leads to demolition|
The hopes and dashed hopes, the three steps forward and two back (sometimes it was the reverse) are legion. many were chronicled in my blogs. A debacle of epic proportion was the so-called Superblock, the failed attempt of the City to play big by redeveloping a really large block all at once, clinging to a developer long after it was clear that his puppy would never hunt. The buildings remaining in this block remain mostly shuttered to this day.
Of course, in Baltimore, hope springs eternal, and local grit realized renovations bit by bit. Finally, even a new Lexington Market has been started, once again a lift based more on demolition and new construction than character preservation.
All the while existing stores continued to fail, vacant buildings burned, crumbled or get demolished (sometimes all three). An example of the utter inability of getting the departments coordinated and on the tail of a lackluster building owner, is the former Tunnel Nightclub building on Eutaw Street, once known as the Gomprecht Building. Nothing was touched after the gigantic fire years back, a fire that was likely caused by squatters because the building stood vacant. The now burnt out shell, untouched and precarious is a disgrace on Eutaw Street to this day. The best prospect seems to be another demolition and another weedy empty lot.
|Lexington Market: Arcade now demolished, no use for the old market|
All those years I walked and biked the streets, dodged the pan handlers, the sleeping homeless and ad hoc vendors of all kinds of ware. My base was first the office on Saratoga Street and then my own place at the corner of Eutaw and Franklin.
My cousin who had grown up in Johannesburg went to the market with me on a visit. "Reminds me of home", she said when seeing the midday scene around the Lexington Market . She told me that she "has never seen something that looks so African outside Africa". She truly liked the lively street-scene and the impromptu character of it all. Yes, the Westside with its many transit stops had more people on the sidewalks than the rest of downtown combined.
|Westside Night Market, a small success|
For me an era comes to an end. 2020 is the year of the end of eras, globally, nationally and locally. Globally thanks to the virus, nationally due to the end of white supremacy (hopefully crowned by an election that reflects that), and locally, with a young progressive mayor taking over.
The future is far from certain. In tthe fog lurks opportunity and risk, on every level.
Baltimore's Westside, just as the entire city, could slide back even further, or it could make the leap forward that is needed to pull it all together.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
My previous articles about Market Center? Westside (from most recent to oldest):
|The Gombrecht Building, neglected, burnt and now slated for demolition.|