Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Can the West Really Have Zest?

The Westside of Downtown Baltimore has largely missed out on the revitalization that has gone in the Inner Harbor, Charles Center, Canton, Fells Point, Mount Vernon, Federal Hill, and Locust Point. Until now, Billions of dollars mostly on the private sector are being invested in the westside on both rebuilding and reusing existing buildings. It's been called the biggest redevelopment undertaking since the inner harbor giving it a the new slogan "The West Has Zest" and I'm posing the question Does it Really?
First let me give you a breif history of Downtown's Westside. The Westside was always known as Baltimore's retail and shopping district. Lexington and Howard streets played host to Baltimore based department stores like Stewarts, Hutzlers, Hoschild Kohn, and Hechts. The afore mentioned department stores were each located at a corner of Lexington and Howard streets. while O'Neils was located at Charles and Lexington streets and Brager-Gutmans was located at Lexington and Park. Five and Dimes were as follows Kresge's across from Brager-Gutmans at Lexington and Park, also along Lexington street was a Woolworths and a Mcrorys.
All of these precursors to big box development thrived until the 1950s when the flock to the suburbs began. The world famous Lexington Market, the 225 year old public market also calls the westside home. There was also the Hippodrome Theatre and Lyric Opera House on the westside.The flock to the suburbs brought change to the shopping habbits of baltimoreans. The flock to the suburbs and the ever greater dependence on the auto mobile allowed the big department stores to open new branches in areas like Woodlawn, Catonsville, Towson, Rosedale, and Edmondson Village. By the 1960s racial change brought sit ins protests and riots to the department stores and racial integration at the downtown stores caused sales to drop as wealthier white shoppers went to the more convenient suburban branches. The1970s and 80s sale closure after closure of departments stores on the westside, by 1990 the scars of urban decline and decay had made their mark with the closure of the Hippodrome Theatre and all department stores and five and dimes. Even Lexington Market was in bad shape.
In 1999 mayor Kurt Schmoke had developed the "Westside Master Plan" a bold new plan to revitalize the troubled district. The Inner Harbor had become a tourist destination and its neighborhoods to the south and east had become some of Baltimore's most sought after addresses. The Westside however was still in decay in fact, the Inner Harbor and its glitzy rehabbed neighborhoods had probably taken away from the westside rather than helping it.
The Westside Master Plan had called for massive demolition of block after block of vacant building. One that the westside has always had going for it was the architecture and design of its buildings. Department store heads and shop keepers alike spared no expense when it came to the facade of their buildings. In short, the demolition of all these buildings would be a big mistake thus the Westside Master Plan was scrapped in favor of something that saves and reuses more of the existing buildings. Don't get me wrong there was and is still plenty of demolition in the cards for the westside but a lot less than was originally planned.
One thing the Westside Master Plan did do was spur interest on the private sector. Oriole Park at Camden Yards is part of the westside but it didn't spur a lot of additional investment on its 1992 opening. The reopening of the Hippodrome Theatre is arguably the biggest catalyst for reinvestment in the westside. Today the westside is right in the middle of its transformation, completed projects include; Social Security Building, University of Maryland, Enoch Pratt Central Branch, and Library for the Blind. Projects currently under construction include Centerpoint, BGE Building, Chalres Plaza, and UMB Housing. Future projects include Superblock, West Lexington Market, and two Convention Center Hotels.
The Westside has seen a increase in residential, office in cultural development. None of these alone can bring a critical mass of people like it did back in its hey day as a shopping district. Some ways to bring this back would be for it to offer things that the Inner Harbor and they city as a whole doesn't offer. This could include a department store, a multi screen movie, and more trendy upsacle boutiques. This would not resemble suburban big box development. It would fit the existing urban grids and be the ground floor or floors of a residential and/or office tower. Another problem is vechicular acess, there are sections of both Lexington and Howard streets that don't cars, both of these areas should be reopened to vehicular traffic. Also the Howard Street light rail needs to be relocated under ground as I've said before and I'll say again. Once the Westisde has the large groups of shoppers and tourists that the harbor does we can truly say that the west has zest.

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