Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The future of Baltimore's oldest market

In October of this year the Baltimore Markets Corporation came to its senses and decided that the Fells Point Broadway Markets, in existence since 1786, should remain in the possession of the City of Baltimore. Now in December there is finally movement with a new team and a set of ideas presented to the community on Tuesday.
Broadway Market in 1953 with second floor and cupola (SUN)

The story of these two market sheds sitting empty (north market) or marginally active (south market) in the median of Broadway amidst a bustling Fells Point is so long and protracted that many may have forgotten its beginning.

The north shed was for a while envisioned as a Belvedere style market with seven vendors by Richard Manekin's WorkShop Development Group together with Dolben in 2012.  The plan was put on hold when the Red Line was still active and an underground station envisioned right in front of the structure. There was discussion of making the shed a construction field office for the Red Line. By the time the Red Line was shelved by the Governor in 2015, WorkShop promised renewed activity but their plans did not come to pass when the development agreement was not extended  because Mannekin did not file an extension. Baltimore Markets decided to rebid the markets and later awarded the negotiation rights to Dolben and Klein who had developed Marketplace at Fells Point on both sides of the markets.
WorkShop design 2015

Dolben and Klein then had the sheds designed by BCT architects as a restaurant, seafood market and amphitheater. But in October Baltimore Markets rejected the proposal in face of community opposition and the insight that it would be better for the City to not sell the properties. Robert Thomas, Executive Director of the Baltimore Markets Inc commented at the time:
"We are taking on the project ourselves. The city and the Markets Corp. is working to do the redevelopment and focus on figuring out what goes where and how the markets are populated. And we want to take care of the existing tenants. "Our prerequisite is to find out what it takes to get the north shed up to snuff. We may call in a consultant. I don't know for sure what if any private money would be interested. The public part of it we know is there." (Robert Thomas, Executive Director of the Baltimore Markets Inc.)
Existing tenants in the 2011 renovated structure include Vicki's Deli, a still popular old time breakfast and lunch counter, Sal's Seafood and The Pretzel Twist.
BCT Design 2016-17

As it turns out Baltimore Markets did actually bring on two private consultants, both have recent "market" experience by realizing two trendy food halls in Baltimore: Development Solutions, whose principal Dominic Wiker developed the Time Group's Mount Vernon Marketplace, and PI.KL, the architecture firm with Pavlina Ilieva and Kuo Lian as a principals who recently designed Seawall's R. House in Remington, and won this year's good design is good business award of Baltimore AIA.
North Market after the top was taken off

At the public meeting, held in the Bond Street Wharf  with four projection screens and a view of the dark water beyond, Colin Tarbert from the Mayor's Office, Robert Thomas from the Market Inc and the architects laid out their initial thoughts and objectives. When asked how a market project would be funded, Robert Thomas responded "we will accept donations". There is pre-development money but no money for construction. While Tabert elaborated that the market would remain in the cities hands, and remain to be leased to Market Inc for operations, the  path towards funding remained unclear and so did the schedule.
Robert Thomas explaining the latest approach
(Photo: Philipsen)

After the meeting Colin Tarbert indicated that a design concept and first budget could be developed in 2018.

The residents began a lively discussion about design, programming, traffic and the economics. They made it clear that they were tired of staring at the boarded North Market which someone called "a dump". "The vacant north market had an amazingly depressing effect" is how one participant put it and several others emphasized the urgency of getting something done. "If you are waiting for perfect it’s not helping the small businesses" was someone else's opinion. A resident suggested "why don't you consider pop-up spaces within 3-6 months" as a method to expedite changeA longtime resident reminded his neighbors that the North Market was successful until a developer subjected it to a planned unit development and shuttered it. Another pointed out that most of the retail spaces on both sides of the market which were built with the Marketplace development remain vacant. There was disagreement whether this was a sign of "too much retail" or a sign how much the vacant market hall drags everything down.

But there were also concerns, especially about additional restaurants, about "too much retail already" and about a lack of parking. Since the consultants had been responsible for food halls, attending restaurant owners and residents made it very clear that they don't need anything like R House in Fells Point.
A posh meeting place in the Bond Street Wharf building
screens and waterview (photo: Philipsen)

Generally, the market concept with places to get food "from a real person", as someone put it, was seen as a good addition to what is already happening in Fells Point. Pavlina Illieva reminded folks that Fells Point needs people to come back and see the area again as the vibrant spot as once was before Harbor East and other areas stealing some of the thunder. The architects only showed objectives and some precedents from other cities and countries such as foodhallen in Amsterdam, no suggested design yet. Illieva promised that the new market wouldn't be "a one trick pony", suggested that opening the arches on the side for light and the ability to move in and out, maybe removing the faux north wall, and connecting the north and south structures would be key elements of success.
Pavlina Illieva presenting design goals
and case studies (photo: Philipsen)

Reviving the markets soon will be key. Although a resident stated that the concept of "market stalls is now obsolete" the direct, personal, small retail of farmers markets and public markets has a renaissance all across America. It appears to be exactly what people yearn for in a time of online food orders and 100,000 sf Wegmans somewhere in the burbs. Butchers, bakers are springing up again in trendy cities just like coffee-shops did in the last two decades. Findley's Market in Cinncinatti shows that a vibrant public market also gives a boost to private retail on both sides of it, even in a previously disinvested area. The concept should certainly work in bustling Fells Point that is far from depressed, even if some residents are depressed about the markets stalling for so long.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles on this blog: 
Broadway Markets - an unfulfilled promise (Oct 2017)

BBJ: Klein proposal rejected

Market in a similar position: Centre Market, Wheeling, WV

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