Sunday, December 4, 2016

Demolish the Lexington Market?

In the last days of her reign Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake unfolds a flurry of activities. Friday came the long expected announcement about the public markets, most notably the Lexington Market the biggest of the bunch. The news contained a bombshell: The suggested course of action is the complete demolition of the existing market in favor of an all new two story structure on the side of the existing building. The new building concept has been developed by Murphy Dittenhafer Architects, Baltimore. Instead of a sloping floor the new structure has  level access from Eutaw Street (lower level) and Paca (upper level). No doubt, the renderings are attractive.
The plan calls for the introduction of more natural light, better ventilation, level floors, human-scale tenant stalls, new storage facilities, customer seating spread
throughout the market, and clear sightlines. The new park will provide much-needed open space in a neighborhood where open space is currently lacking, and the park space would be managed 
by a non-profit foundation along the lines of the successful Center Plaza Foundation. LMI retained Market Ventures, Inc., to create the Lexington Market Master Plan, Murphy Dittenhafer and Floura Teeter for architectural services, and Whiting Turner for construction management services. LMI is working closely with its architects and construction manager to reduce construction costs and to target a construction budget between $35 and 40 million. (Press Release)
The practical benefits are obvious. The old building could accommodate all vendors without disturbance while the new structure goes up. One day the merchants would just move over into a brightness facility with modern heating, cooling and storage, all items of concern in the old building. The new structure would finally attract the folks that don't want too to the current market because  it doesn't suit them. As much as I'd love an attractive real landmark market building that draws across the region, let's carefully think this through.
Lexington Market (photo: Philipsen)

Well, there a few problems, though, with this line of reasoning.

Lack of available funds

The approach is costly and the  money for such a radical project is just not there right now. Which doesn't mean it could be there in the future, but in the meantime nobody will invest a thing in the existing market, nobody will fill a vacant stall and those who are there will live in fear whether the new market would be affordable for them or would even have space for them. (It is smaller). How treacherous years of limbo can be to a market could be observed at the Cross Street Market which sits in an affluent area but began to be just a shadow of itself because its future was so unclear. For the approach to be effective it has to happen really soon.
Proposed new market (Rendering by Murphy Dittenhafer)

Urban design

One of the problems of the current market is that it occupies what used to be Lexington Street. If the current market gets demolished Lexington Street would become a through corridor again, at least for pedestrians and it would need to look attractive on its long north side facing the street. The current market abuts the gigantic parking garage and receives its services (deliveries, trash removal) from there. It isn't clear how those functions would work in the new building and still maintain three attractive sides. Plus, the vacant lot where the current market sits could easily be a bigger eyesore than the existing vacant lot, because it would expose the hideous garage fully. The renderings show both of these conditions addressed, through a park, architecture, outdoor stalls and wall graphics (murals) but things rarely look as good in real as they do on renderings, especially when there is no money. 

Branding
Current Lex Market (photo: Philipsen)

The current market brands itself as the oldest continuously in use public market in America. While the structure isn't going back to 1774, it is old enough to convey a feel of history in areas such as Faidleys. It would be awfully hard to brand a modern glass structure such as the one shown on the renderings as the oldest market in America. It will also be hard to convey the fondness that many people still have for the current market. Just in October market CEO Thomas wrote me that "we are actually developing our first phase plan to “transform in place” because many DO like the market as it is".

Dog whistles

While nobody would seriously dispute that the existing Lexington Market structure is not particularly attractive and has a some serious systems issues, the real problems with the market lie beyond the building itself. The market sits in a disinvested part of town with few attractive destinations. A lot of poor people come here by transit and to find the essential services that can't be found in the neighborhoods to the west of MLK. Not very many people walk here from downtown, the Inner Harbor or even the nearby Convention Center. There just isn't enough of a reason to do so. There are many instances of what currently is called  dog whistle or coded message. The uncooked message is: Too many poor people, too many black people, too many people going to drug treatment, too many drug dealers (people hanging out on the street, no, not all social gathering is just to hide drug sales). The same complaints as with transit.
the proposed interior (Rendering Murphy Dittenhafer)
 Many current users of the market don't see a whole lot of problems with the current condition. There are cheap food choices based on current customers's preferences and the market is always busy. The problems are seen by those who don't go to the market. They say it isn't safe, it isn't clean and it doesn't sell what they want to buy. The matter is a bit like with transit. A lot of the critics never ride a bus but they are very vocal about what's wrong with current transit. Of course, there is a kernel of truth in the perceptions about transit and also the market.  
current Lexington Market (photo: Philipsen)

There had been questionnaires "would you go to the market if it were cleaner, safer" and so forth that implied already in the question that the current market wasn't safe or clean. The market had been talked down systematically by the same folks who wanted all bus stops removed from the front of the market and want all drug clinics removed as well. The same folks that wanted the downtown Greyhound station expelled to an area behind the incinerator; in short, there are those who think the market can only be saved if a lot of more affluent white people go there. It is true that a big public market must address a diverse clientele and cannot thrive from serving only the poor. But it cannot be that every market in town has to be like the one at Belvedere Square or the new Mount Vernon Market only a few blocks to the north from Lexington market. An updated market would surely benefit from better merchandising and a more coordinated assortment of vendors. Nothing wrong with some exotic cheeses for sale or some craft bread or French cake. But there would be something severely wrong with a new market where the rents are so high that the current merchants can't afford them or have to jack up their prices to support a fancy building. 
Pikes Market: Good food, not a fancy building
(photo: Philipsen)

Conclusion

 The real challenge here is not the building but the not sufficiently varied merchandise and the location. Money spent on some necessary building upgrades including building systems and some skylights is needed but the bulk should be spent on management and merchandising. People don't eat the building. Look at Pikes Market in Seattle or the Reading Terminal Market in Philly, both thrive not from fancy buildings but from their location and there wares. In fact the structures are kind of dank in both places. The location of the Lexington Market is fixed. To make it a truly great location the connections to the convention center and to downtown need to be fixed. As long as Lexington Street to the east remains in its current condition, no amount of architecture can turn the market around. In other words, money is needed beyond an upgrade of the building or new structures. The question is, if limited resources wouldn't be better spent on basic upgrades and incentives for merchants to improve products and operations and towards making the surrounding blocks of the westside better.

The good news is that the long silence around the market has been broken and an attractive proposal is on the table. What exactly the best course of action is needs public vetting now. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

City Video

Proposed Lexington Market from Paca Street (Rendering Murphy Dittenhafer)

Corner Eutaw and Lexington (Rendering Murphy Dittenhafer)

Looking northeast on Paca with the big garage in the back (Rendering Murphy Dittenhafer)