Monday, January 9, 2017

Nick's Oyster bar got the boot

Nick's Oyster Bar has been in the Cross Street Market since 1972. So when Caves Valley, the Developer that has received the development rights for the Baltimore Market on Jan 1 terminated Nicks' lease a few days later, it drew a lot attention. Caves gave as the official reason that Nicks had received violation notices from the Baltimore City Health Department, among other things about rodents. Some smell a rat.

Nick's Oyster Bar during a fundraiser fro Council President Young in 2013
Cross Street Market has existed in one form or another since 1846. Nick's heydays in the Cross Street Market may have been when Bill Struever's development and construction company was riding high  and the developer held his annual holiday party at the eastern end of the market at Nick's Oyster Bar and pretty the surrounding vendors in the western half of the market. Struever had started his construction and development activities with rowhouse rehabs in the day of the dollar house and the revival of Federal Hill where he developed Grindall's Yard. For the parties the Market was mobbed way beyond capacity because the parties were essentially uncontrolled and even hobos streamed there for free beer and oysters. Struever, famous for boisterous parties didn't seem to mind, floating in the center of the mob extending cheers and holiday wishes. The company with his name grew soon too big for parties at the Market and then in the recent financial crisis crashed and went under. The Market went into a long, slow decline.

Early concepts (2015, BCT)
Caves Valley is a different type developer. Having been a well known entity in Towson for some time (Towson City Center, Towson Row, the much contested Royal Farm gas station dubbed Towson Gateway), partners Arthur Adler and Arsh Mirmiran set their eyes on Baltimore City pivoting to more urban development. Caves Valley became a partner in the Horsheshoe Casino deal and goes about additional investments in a strategic way. The apparent goal: bridging the gap between flourishing Federal Hill and the Casino on Warner Street. Caves bought industrial lots in Sharp Leadenhall, a historic African American community which had been amputated by the construction of I-395 and is squeezed in between prosperous Federal Hill and the industrial area that sprawls in the areas between I-395 and South Baltimore. The first phase of the $250 million dollar 650 unit housing complex called Stadium Square with 300,000 sf of office and 80,000 sf of retail is nearing completion on Cross Street, the remaining phases are well underway as well. From there, it made good sense for Caves Valley to look at the ailing nearby Cross Street Market.

Caves Valley - War-Horse original proposal: Green roof

Rendering: Brown Craig and Turner Architects
The Cross Street Market is close to the boundary of Federal Hill and Sharp Leadenhall its decline in recent years a bit a mystery with all the restaurants flanking it that had turned Cross Street into party town rivaling Fells Point.

Caves Valley teamed up with Scott Plank's War Horse Development and suggested to the City that they could fix the market in a private public partnership in which the private side fixes the market up, operates it and the City maintains ownership and collects rent and a share of whatever profits.  The City, facing problems with its markets on many fronts, welcomed the overture with open arms. Struever, never one to give up easily, had since opened a new business under the name Cross Street Partners was part of the deal as well, as a manager of the completed the Market. That was in 2014 and 2015, but then nothing happened for a long time until in April 2016 it became known that Scott Plank's War Horse and Struever had dropped out of the team. Mirmiran told me it was a friendly parting and that War Horse couldn't see a way to make any money with that Market. Meanwhile, War Horse was developing a food hall in San Francisco's Tenderloin District and was mentioned by Baltimore's Market chief Robert Thomas as a potential partner for another Baltimore market P3. Struever is involved with the conversion of several old industrial buildings in East and West Baltimore such as the Hoehn Lithograph building and the Lion Brothers building.

Finally, in November of last year, a new, smaller $6.5 million Cross Street proposal became the accepted deal between City and Caves Valley for which the developer received the "exclusive negotiation rights". The proposal includes $2 million public funds for improvements, 50/50 profit sharing (after developers cost and fees) and a lease in which the developer pays rent to the City.

Caves Valley proposal 2016: "Baltimore's Ferry Terminal Market" (Mirmiran)
Needless to say that the long time of uncertainty hasn't helped the businesses in the market to turn the corner. The termination of the lease with Nicks, one of the more successful and long lasting tenants, will do nothing for merchants to feel any safer.

The future of the Cross Street Market should be of interest to all who care about Baltimore's public markets, whether they are in East Baltimore, Fells Point, on Hollins Street, on Pennsylvania Avenue or it is the flagship market on Eutaw Street itself. All of the them, except the Eastern Market that was recently renovated, seem to be in some type of limbo. With food halls and private markets such as Belvedere Market and Mount Vernon Market all the rage in Baltimore, and across America, one should think that Cross Street Market which is located in an affluent part of town, shouldn't be so hard to figure out. Along those lines, Caves Valley hired Cana Development to configure spaces and market the project, the same company that also did this for the Mt Vernon Market.

According to the BBJ, during the renovation merchants are given the option to relocate to another City market or to nearby City owned properties, not a comforting prospect for some who have large equipment in the current market.

Some speculate that the powers on the Cross Street Market Advisory Board may steer the Market into a direction that may not be in the interest of the neighborhood and wonder aloud why merchants aren't included on that Board and are, instead, left guessing what will happen next.  Recently re-elected councilman Eric Costello said in a Facebook discussion about the Market and who is on the Board:  "Horseshoe Casino and Downtown Partnership as well as the Waterfront Partnership and Visit Baltimore (the City’s quasi-governmental tourism agency) are represented as well, along with the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and Senior Class President at Digital Harbor High School. I asked Baltimore Public Markets Corporation to include the first four because I believe they have constituencies that could contribute to the neighborhood economy."

As is often the case in Baltimore, it is hard to untangle the twisted web. Nicks Fishhouse in Port Covington and Nicks Oyster Bar were once in the hands of the same person. Since then, though, the Port Covington restaurant has changed hands: One of the new partners: Demien Costa of Kevin Plank's Sagamore Development.

One can hope that the future of the 170 year old Market doesn't hang on some kind of urban fad that lasts only a few years but that the Market remains a vital "commons" of South Baltimore that serves all segments of the population and keeps the authenticity that Nick's presented so well.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The SUN about the agreement between City and Caves Valley

BBJ about the agreement for the Cross Street Market

The SUN about ownership change at Nick's Fish House

BBJ with details of the agreement:


  1. And Arsh completely lied about all of the 150+ health code violations that Nick's supposedly had. It was refuted by a letter from the Health Department saying that Nick's had a clean record. I do not trust Arsh in the slightest.

  2. screw this.... no need to come to town