Thursday, March 12, 2020

Market Center: "The quality of the public realm impacts how people perceive and treat a community"

The less government gets the job done, the more non-profits have to step in and have to step up. Baltimore is a prime example of this.

The The Market Center organizations – the Market Center Community Development Corporation (MCCDC) and Market Center Merchants Association (MCMA) are created to revitalize Market Center, Baltimore’s 27-block historic retail core, to many simply known as "Howard Street".
Howard Street is better than its reputation. And no, light
rail did not kill it. (Photo: Philipsen)

The steep decline of this once thriving center of urban shopping with its signature department stores which drew shoppers from far and wide is representative of Baltimore's transformation from a industrial legacy city to a knowledge city. Instead of Bethlehem Steel  employing 30,000 area residents, Johns Hopkins  now has the largest number of jobs and employs just as many.  Shopping has largely left the city, leaving behind conditions that local government has failed to repair, in spite of decades of debate and efforts. The department stores became housing (Hechts), the headquarters of non-profits (Stewart's) or a place of switch gear for the information highways (Hutzler's) but many other beautiful former stores remain vacant and subject to decay.

The transformation is not without its successes, but, just like in the rest of the city, it didn't go smoothly, nor is it complete. In the case of Baltimore's former shopping hub, one of the big bumps were the large holdings of the Weinberg Foundation once amassed by real estate mogul Harry Weinberg ("Honolulu Harry"). At the time he bought many buildings for speculative purposes, many have not seen any change since he had bequeathed that they couldn't be sold. The Weinberg Foundation, today known as one of Baltimore's great philanthropic organisations,  finally broke through this last will and some of the buildings have been sold and now seen investment.

The bumpy story of Baltimore's Westside has been told many times. A few years back, the Urban Land Institute brought in a national panel including former Pittsburgh Mayor Murphy. The recommendation was that Baltimore should use Cincinnati's successfully revived Over the Rhine neighborhood as a model and that the City and the University of Maryland should form a close partnership for a joint revitalization effort. A concise concerted effort as in the case of Cleveland can not be found, though, just baby steps.
The new L on Liberty apartments. Fillat Architects (Photo: website)

Another player is the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPoB). It derived from an initial focus on Charles Street and keeping it a vital retail spine of downtown. The mission gradually expanded, some say too far: The less city agencies had a real road map for Baltimore's downtown, the more DPoB stepped in. They did marketing, planning, promotion and big picture thinking, including providing the concept of a downtown bus shuttle (now the DOT run Charm City Circulator), a green space plan and the renovation of Center Plaza.

The Market Center Merchant Association exists since 1983 as a 501c6 organization to deal with the core of the downtown retail district. The organization was in some ways a subset to DPoD and also represented the merchants towards the Baltimore Development Corporation which on and off became visible as a strong leader for the revitalization of the "Westside" (a term they coined along with silly slogans like "the west has zest"),. Some of BDC's actions (the "superblock") dragged the area further down by vacating large areas for large scale urban renewal type rehabilitation, an approach that largely failed. Today BDC is employing nimbler tactics, but the triumvirate of DPoB, BDC and Market Center has still not yet become the smooth collaborative team effort it should be, nor is the university involved at all steps. 
Kristin Mitchell at a recent meeting in Lexington Market
(Photo: Philipsen)

Nevertheless, the last 10 plus years of a booming economy have brought lots of progress to the Market Center area to which the City and the various non-profits contributed in various forms. Progree measured by cranes and construction includes:

  • Chiefly the new Lexington Market is of note (a ground breaking took place last month), 
  • new affordable units on Liberty Street were just completed, 
  • a new apartment and a hotel highrise are going up right south of the new market, 
  • an entire row of buildings is nearly complete on the westside of Paca Street (Volunteers of America across from where the new market will be), 
  • new uses and even an infill structure happen right now on the 400 block of Howard Street, 
  • developers were chosen for the area behind Howard Street towards Park Avenue and 
  • new apartments are being built at the corner of Mulberry and Eutaw Street.  (For a full list and project details see here).

Kristen Forsyth Mitchell took over the helm of the Market Center Merchant organisation in 2016 and presided over the creation of the CDC. I got to know her when she had changed from the Valley's Planning Council to become Program Director at the 1000 Friends of Maryland. She also worked for the State Planning Office, the Baltimore Development Corporation and was Director of Smart Growth at the state.

In her new capacity as executive director of the Market center organisations she is a big fish in a small pond, a fish that at times goes out with rubber gloves, a broom and a trash bag to collect trash in the district which is not entirely covered by DPoB's clean and safe program. She oversees all kinds of outreach programs ("mingles", newsletters, Facebook) that are supposed to bring merchants, downtown residents, the artists of the Bromo art district and the new investors together.  The organization produced a long-term revitalization plan for the area that is based on member responses and ideas.

Kristen Mitchell's perspective on the ground level is a valuable voice in the group of stakeholders I have asked questions about Baltimore in the context of this election season. Her district, Market Center reflects many problems that are typical for Baltimore. Her public answers are a bit more careful than they would be in private conversation.

Kristen Forsyth Mitchell

1.    Are you overall optimistic about Baltimore or pessimistic? Why? 

Optimistic – I meet people every day who inspire me, from artists working with young people on creative forms of expression or small business owners who, on top of providing goods, services and jobs for Baltimoreans, go above and beyond by doing things like mentoring others, hosting community events, and contributing to charitable causes.  I am not na├»ve – I know that Baltimore has some deeply rooted obstacles, but I have faith in the people of Baltimore.  
Construction east of Paca for new student housing and
hotel (Photo Philipsen)

2.    What can the new Mayor do for Market Center and the west-side of downtown?  

Invest in the public infrastructure of Market Center, so that it is well-lit, and the sidewalks, curbs, gutters, crosswalks, and streets are in a state of good repair, and ensure top-notch public services such as trash collection and street sweeping.  The quality of the public realm impacts how people perceive and treat a community, and while we know all parties can and must do a better job of maintenance, we hope that the city will lead the charge and inspire property and business owners to also make new investments.  I know that public safety is a big concern in Market Center, so I hope the mayor will support and direct resources to a holistic approach, one that helps people in need of healthcare, addiction services, housing, and employment for example, while also making it clear that violence is not acceptable in this community.  From a bigger picture perspective, we also need to ensure access to quality public education and public transit across the board – everyone deserves access to solid education and jobs, and without that, our people and communities will continue to struggle.

3.    What recent local fact has depressed you the most? 

I don’t know if “depresses me” is the right term, but the thing that breaks my heart the most is knowing that there are people, especially children, in Baltimore who do not feel safe in or valued by their community.  
4.    Do you support a particular candidate for Mayor and for City Council?  

As the lead staff for a nonprofit organization, I am going to choose to keep this to myself.
"The quality of the public realm impacts how
people perceive and treat a community"
(Photo: Philipsen)

5.    What personal contribution to planning or development in Baltimore or the Market Center area are you most proud of?  

The Market Center Community Development Corporation spearheaded the creation of the Market Center Strategic Revitalization Plan (Phase I), which we did in four months on a shoestring budget – and we still managed to engage 95 unique individuals in the process.  The plan, which the Maryland Department of Housing & Community Development approved in November 2019, establishing Market Center as a designated Baltimore Regional Neighborhoods (BRNI) partner and thus making the community eligible for BRNI grants, addresses housing, economy, transportation, quality of life, environment, and community engagement.  We have just begun Phase II, which will include conversations with and learning from people we did not adequately connect with in Phase I, as well as diving more deeply into complex issues like affordable housing, human services, and traffic patterns.  Access to these grants should make it easier for nonprofits and others to pursue projects like affordable housing, vacant building stabilization, and workforce development and entrepreneurship programs, to cite several possibilities.
The block where the abandoned Martick's restaurant sits
awaits redevelopment. A developer has been selected.
(Photo: Philipsen)

6.    The Market Center Area has seen many ups and downs. Where do you think we stand right now? 

We are definitely on the upswing, as evidenced by the $132+ million in development activity underway as we speak, including but not limited to Lexington Market. The Lexington Market redevelopment is a big deal for the community – I talk to residents, business owners, and property owners daily who never thought this would happen – because it has the potential to serve residents of all income levels, from all over the city, and attract tourists as well (the first and foremost goal is to serve residents, of course). The goal now is to match this development activity with investment in the public infrastructure of the community, in small and homegrown businesses, and the people of Market Center, to do our part – as the Market Center Community Development Corporation and Market Center Merchants Association – to ensure that Market Center is a community in which all Baltimoreans know they are welcome, and a place where people with different backgrounds, education and income levels can find jobs and homes. 

7.    Can you describe in a couple of specific attributes that could and should set Market Center aside from any other area in Baltimore and should become the main draw for people of this region to go there?  
Market Center map

Market Center is in a unique position in Baltimore.  As the community in Baltimore with the most robust public transit and a lot of vacant and underused buildings, we can increase the number of jobs and residents in Market Center without displacement, and in a location readily accessible to most Baltimoreans.  Thus, investment in Market Center can help communities and people throughout Baltimore.  On top of that, Market Center has a tremendous stock of cool historic buildings, the building blocks for a super-pedestrian-friendly community, a base of culturally diverse small businesses and interests, and amazing institutions, arts venues, the city’s biggest public market, and its central library.  We are incredibly unique.  Let’s build on that.

8.    Any final thought?  

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