Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Will the Lexington Market finally be saved?

Markets, food halls, brew pubs and coffee shops are celebrated catalysts of urban revitalization. Each has a long-standing tradition of place-making and interaction as basic building blocks of settlements. None of it had to be invented and yet, all these elements had to be rediscovered after a long period of social isolation stemming from suburbanization, air conditioning, television and individualized mobility people. After the private has trumped the public for decades, people in North America seem to be yearning to meet and mingle in places which are at once familiar and comfortable and also new and cool.
The west market shed: Not much to write home about (Photo Philipsen)

It is telling in many ways that while all of these elements are thriving profit centers for private enterprises, the public markets in Baltimore are ailing. All six Baltimore public markets are in some type of transition except one, the Northeast Market. The saviors have to come from the private side. City agencies and government are too resource strapped and demoralized to come up with much that is creative or doable. When the Baltimore public market agency under directive of various mayors created plans and hired consultants to guide the future of the markets, it often created the unintended result of gumming up the works. As a result some of the markets declined to being a mere shadow of their former selves.

So it was with the aging Lexington Market, mostly ailing from the uncertainty too many City plans have created. In her last days in office, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake announced what was, until last week, the most recent and most problematic plan. It suggested to raze all existing market buildings and replace them with one modern two story glass building to be created on the parking lot to the south of today’s east market.
A long stretch of a miserable pedestrian experience: The vast access area
to the east garage with its garbage and delivery areas (Photo Philipsen)

The plan's had so many flaws, its hard to decide whether the lack of public and vendor participation or the lack of funds to realize the costly plan were he biggest flaw or whether it was its unimaginative design which didn't work in the given topography. In short, it was a plan without players which left merchants in limbo in a building that urgently needed upgrades. Once the death-mark had been put on the structures, no real investments were made anymore. As a result the number of vacant stalls increased while sales decreased. A rat in a bakery case earlier this year seemed like the last nail in the coffin.
The large Westside Market complex is crucial for the future of the entire downtown area (Graphic: ArchPlan)

Now comes Seawall’s Thibault Manekin to the rescue with a cheaper and faster plan that can be started as early as next year. This would shorten the uncertainty. However, not much is known about the plan except what payments Seawall would receive for being the entity which designs and builds the market. Vendors and the public still need to be heard and a consensus has to be created about what the desired outcomes are supposed to be and what therefore, the guiding principles should be. Fundamental questions include:
  • For whom is the market, for poor nearby residents, tourists, the thriving new downtown community or all of the above?
  • What should be the balance between selling fresh foods and consuming prepared foods?
  • What buildings should remain a market, what would be the functions of any new structure?
  • What would be the balance between indoor and outdoor activities?
  • What improvements can be made in the surroundings?
Always plenty of people (Photo Philipsen)
Successful markets are surrounded by activities that support the market function, either by providing customers (the convention center in the case of the Reading Terminal Market), by having small retail in the surrounding stores that complements the market (Seattle's Pike's Peak or Cincinnatti's Findley's Market) or they sit within a thriving or revitalizing area which in itself is a destination (Cincinnatti's Over the Rhine). Baltimore's Lexington Market is surrounded by giant parking structures with all the deadening effect they have on pedestrians and street life. Retail in the area is marginal and whatever is there isn't synergistic with the market in the way the coffee shops, bakeries and delis are elsewhere. The approach to the market from the east, the west, the north or the south reeks of private and public neglect, sometimes worse.

Seawall would oversee the design and construction of the market renovation and potentially also participate in vendor selection to fill the existing vacancies. The same company also designed and renovated the Baltimore Design school in a similar way. In that case the school system is leasing the building back from Seawall. In the case of the Lexington Market the City will keep the ownership. Seawall has recently completed the R-House in Remington, a popular food hall. The company is also known for its affordable teacher housing projects in Remington and Hampden.
Neglect: Burnt in Jan 2017 and never touched since then
(Photo Philipsen)

Private public partnerships are also underway for the Broadway Market in Fells Point, the Hollins Market in Poppleton and the Cross Street Market in Federal Hill. Warhorse Development, whose owner Scott Plank also owns the Belvedere Square market is well aware of the need to invest in the market surroundings. His company is currently renovating rowhouses around Hollins Square. In the case of Lexington Market, various private investments are underway, but they are not a sufficient concerted effort of creating a stable environment for the market. A recent blow to the area was the departure of the Rite Aid located on the first floor of the Atrium apartments (the former Hechts building). Just north of the market the stately former Gomprecht and Benesch Building is just a burnt out shell that hasn't been touched since a spectacular fire gutted the interior in January of 2017.

In a time when the national and local social fabric is under great tension, spaces for diverse communities to come together and find common ground are more important than ever. Markets are such spaces. A successful renovation of Lexington Market is key to a renewal of the Westside and key to the future of Baltimore. The Seawall deal may very well be the last chance to rescue the market and bring it in line with similar successes around the country and the world.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Large deadzones at the large parking garages east and west on Paca Street
(Photo Philipsen)

Western parking garage at Paca Street (Photo Philipsen)

Missing bricks, open tree pits without soil, broken curbs, asphalt patches: Public neglect
(Photo Philipsen)

A nice recent renovation  but no efforts of  "merchandising" , i.e. finding a
healthy mix of retail in the area (Photo Philipsen)

Trash and smell to the south (Photo Philipsen)
Trash and neglect  to the north (Photo Philipsen)

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