Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Rooting for Market Center

I was busy photographing a set of bunched Local Link buses travelling on Eutaw Street when I heard  voice saying greeting me. When I turned around there was the new Market Center Merchant Association Executive Director dragging a big trashcan with one hand and holding a broom in the other.
MCMA Director Kristin Mitchell in clean and sweep

Kristen Forsyth-Mitchell heads an organization with a staff of one, herself. As such she must be an all purpose weapon. I knew that with her Masters in community planning and her background as Economic Development Director at BDC and then Smart Growth Director at the State Department of Planning she knows planning in and out, but I didn't know she also would sweep the streets of Baltimore's Westside. Or of Market Center as she would say, using the older name for the district around Lexington Market which has had an merchant association dating back to the days when the area was still Baltimore's retail hub.

MCMA helps to clean the streets once a week, says Mitchell, adding to the sweep power Downtown Partnerships’ Clean Sweep Ambassadors, the City Department of Public Works, Lexington Market’s operations team, and the ARC of Baltimore, which has a contract with the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to clean transit stops.
Market Center map

That's a lot of cleaning and one can't be quite sure if it is indicative of high traffic in the district, a poor sense of civic pride by the users of the area or a sign of too many corners and alleys that don't have the eyes on the street that are needed for self policing. Market Center is characterized by a mix of all of these aspects: There are more people walking the streets than in any other Baltimore area. Many are transit riders from West Baltimore neighborhoods that are part of Baltimore's food and service deserts, residents who comes to Lexington Market as the only reasonable choice to buy fresh food, Baltimoreans well aware of the fact that they inhabit the parts of Baltimore that many others fear to tread. This awareness doesn't instill civic pride.  There are also aspects of Baltimore's alternative economy with legal and illegal street vendors, legal and illegal taxis offering rides for those frustrated by MTA , in the middle of it all those shouting out the gospel. And there is still a lot of abandonment including the burnt out shell of the former Club ...that hasn't been touched ever since the fire.
Parking lot crab fest at Lexington Market

Blond Kristin with her elite professional history dragging a trashcan is quite a surreal appearance here. "Everyone should be able to see beauty every day" she explains with the words of Charlestons previous Mayor Riley which she heard him say at a revitalization conference she attended.  
Market Center possesses characteristics of great beauty, particularly in its architecture, but litter, weeds, graffiti, broken and boarded windows, vacant buildings, and damaged sidewalks and streets often obscure the beauty. MCMA encourages business district maintenance by helping sweep the streets, talking to business owners about proper trash and recycling disposal, and submitting 311 requests for alley and street cleaning. This is a big task and we need to get beyond basic maintenance to proactive beautification. (Mitchell in the MCMA Newsletter)
Market Center, once Baltimore's premier retail district that has lost all its department stores and name brand retail has seen many efforts of revitalization, including a masterplan and a number of non-profits such as the now defunct Westside Renaissance Inc. created by Peter Angelos presumably to foil BDC's "Superblock" redevelopment efforts. BDC redubbed the area Westside ("The Westside has Zest"). Market Center is also a National Register historic district. Once a glorious shopping street, Howard Street has become a label for failure that evokes eye rolling and negative images, whether it is shuttered storefronts, downtown safety or slow light rail. Years of efforts have done little to soften those perceptions. Kristen Mitchell is ready to change that.
The Place Lounge (left) on Franklin Street: Wildly popular (Photo: ArchPlan)

Already the Westside got the new Hippodrome Broadway theater, the new Everyman theater, the mixed use CenterPoint development with hundreds of apartments, the Atrium, the converted Hechts department store now also apartments, a renovated Stewarts building which is Catholic Relief's world headquarters and a fully occupied stretch of Baltimore Street west of Eutaw Street boasting renovated facades and national food retailers such as Panera Bread. But none of this has turned the area around in a decisive manner. A dozen or so additional projects are in the pipeline including several larger and smaller ones devoted to bringing the almost entirely deceased 400 and 500 block of Howard Street back to life.

What really seems to make a difference is what happens on the north end of Market Center, ironically centered around another market: The Mount Vernon Market, a hipster Mecca at the ground floor of the former Hochschild Kahn building is changing the perceptions more than any of those much larger projects further south. The new market has taken hold during the day and the evening. With the sister project to the 501 Park warehouse conversion coming online new people will come to the area without having to fear stepping outside in the same way as the residents of the Atrium and Centerpoint do. The old urban design truth that the healing happens from the edges turns out to be true once again. Building on the strength of Mount Vernon and Seton Hill the north end not only yielded the lively marketplace and the Ceremony coffeeshop but also the wildly successful "The Place", a lounge and music venue in a tiny historic building on Franklin Street just east of Eutaw,  the 405 artist housing with Gallery Four and a whole slew of new small galleries on Franklin Street. All in all a mix that is racially and economically diverse.
Over The Rhine: Findley's Market as revitalization booster
(Photo: Philipsen)

Can Park Avenue with its half defunct Chinatown be revived as an ethnic food enclave that connects the norther edge to the always relatively stable Saratoga Street, bypassing the notorious Howard Street? What can it be that sets the Westside or Market Center apart from Hampden, Pigtown or Remington to name just a few of those other quirky revitalization areas who do a balancing dance somewhere between gentrification, funkiness and abandonment. All attempts of drawing tourists and convention goers north have failed to date. Maybe drawing residents from the north is a much safer bet?

The Market Center merchants finally have somebody who thinks about this every day, in part by reveiwing all the advice that came in over the years. When ULI came to town to advise about the Westside, Pittsburgh's former mayor Murphy led the team. Their biggest piece of advice at the time was that the President of the University of Maryland and the Mayor should meet and collaborate. But they also mentioned a precedent: Over the Rhine in Cincinnatti, an area of historic preservation and restoration that has not only been from a near death state but also succeeded in remaining authentic and protecting low income residents, tenants and services.

Over the Rhine's Findley's Market is a core puzzle piece in the revitalization of the yet to fully occur north area revitalization. It is hard to imagine that the inward looking glass box envisioned as our new Lexington Market can play a similar pivotal role unless somebody wakes up and ditches that doomed design approach. (More about here and here).
Development in the pipeline. (MCMA)

Over the Rhine's approach of living above the store, careful storefront restoration and nurture of the local specialty shop is precisely what could work in Baltimore's Westside.

For that to happen the merchants, the Bromo Arts District, the Downtown Partnership, the University and the major property owners in the area need to agree on a common goal, set specific targets and develop a strategic plan with realistic milestones to achieve them. No plan, though, no matter how well defined the metrics, will work without some infusion of real capital.

Time for the Weinberg Foundation to step up  not only almost everywhere else in the city, but on its original home turf, the Westside where the massive land hording of "Honolulu Harry" Weinberg partly created the vacancy problem in the first place. Putting a good anchor tenant into the first floor of the Stewart's building would be a good first step, even if the rent may be a loss leader.
10 months into her job Kristen Mitchell is still full of enthusiasm. Maybe it will last long enough to finally lift the Westside into a virtuous cycle of revitalization that will make the area once again a destination.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

MCMA summer Newsletter

New businesses in the Market Center Area:
Miss Carter’s Kitchen, 218 N. Liberty Street
Ono Poke, 413 W. Baltimore Street
Zeni Cafe, 316 Park Avenue
Cucina al Volo, Mount Vernon Marketplace, 520 Park Avenue
La Quinta Inn & Suites, 200 W. Saratoga Street
Liberty Pharmacy, 108 N. Eutaw Street
Lucky Star Tobacco & Grocery, 400 W. Saratoga Street
Saison Wafel, Mount Vernon Marketplace, 520 Park Avenue
Tangled Hair Salon, 319 W. Mulberry Street
The Red Boat (coming soon), 3 N. Eutaw Street

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