Sunday, September 30, 2007

Oldtown Mall: You Tube Worthy

What would you do with Old Town Mall? That's the question that's on the mind of a few young women who travelled the severely vacant and distressed property with a video camera asked themselves and each other. Each member of the group put in their two cents about what would be done with the property and then they gave panoramic views of just how bad the property is. One can also that nobody else was there. The mall was trash ridden, the stores were shuddered and the center square with the mall's logo, was obsolete and dated. The video, two of them actually was submitted to you tube and while I was gathering info about Old Town Mall, I just happened upon it.First a brief history of Old Town. As its name suggests the neighborhood is old. It was one of Baltimore town's earliest settlements because of its proximity to the harbor and the Jones Falls. Throughout the 1800s Old Town played host to German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian immigrants. The neighborhood was poor and living conditions were rough but each group of immigrants persevered and eventually prospered. Once residents made enough money they left for a more prosperous neighborhood, usually uptown to the northwest and then a new poorer set of immigrants repopulated the neighborhood. During World War I the city's black population continued to grow and Old Town became a black neighborhood. Old Town, always being a working class neighborhood always thrived but being at the city's center it began to decline after World War II. As the flight to the suburbs got into full swing the population of Old Town swelled especially the poor population. Old East Baltimore plays host to the highest concentration of public housing in the city. As part of "blight elimination" and "urban renewal" of the 1960s Old Town Mall was built. Old Town Mall is a pedestrian only plaza that used to be the 400 and 500 blocks of Gay Street. Old Town Mall opened in the 1960s catering to the area's poor population. It was surrounded almost completely by public housing or privately owned subsidized housing. The mall catered to this and offered goods and services at discount prices. The architecture screams retro urban renewal of the 1960s and 70s. The never really thrived but it held its own for a while. It was spared during the riots following the MLK assignation.
A few things contributed to the down fall of Old Town Mall. First, the opening of Harborplace and the Gallery at the Inner Harbor. Although the glitzy new shops of the Inner Harbor didn't cater to the same market as Old Town Mall, there was a definite drop off in patronage. Second, crime since Old Town Mall is located in the middle of several low income housing development crime was almost inevitable. At this point I'd like to list just how many public housing developments are near Old Town Mall they are or in cases were; Flag House Courts, Lafayette Courts, Broadway Homes, Douglass Homes, Somerset Homes and Extention, Monument House, Latrobe Homes, Clay Courts, and Lester Morton Courts. This bring me to my third factor HOPE VI. Although HOPE VI helped with crime and blight in its targeted developments, it lowered the density in its targeted developments at the same time. Fewer people living near the area means fewer shoppers. Since the 1990s there have been proposals to redevelop Old Town Mall but nothing has to come to fruition. Lots of high hopes for the future turned into broken promises. Old Town Mall is about 70% vacant according to a recent article.One reason plans haven't left the drawing board is because they only contain the small pedestrian mall. What needs to be done is take a comprehensive look at the mall and the surrounding neighborhoods.My plan for redevelopment includes the entire Old Town Neighborhood, Penn Fallsway, and Douglass Homes. Current conditions can't support the businesses of Old Town Mall, so we change current conditions. Old Town is a neighborhood comprised almost exclusively of public housing, Penn Fallsway is nothing but office buildings with sprawling almost suburban like surface parking lots. Douglass Homes, located in the Dunbar Broadway neighborhood, which according to the 2000 census has a 40% vacancy rate. There are many things that can be favorable to this area. First, in Penn Fallsway there are many surface parking lots that can be used to increase density. Second, its proximity to Downtown.
The proposed demolition of the Jones Falls Expressway will make this area an extension of Downtown. Third, the proximity to mass transit. The Metro Subway runs underground and has a stop at the Shot Tower and Johns Hopkins Hospital. My plan includes creating an Old Town Mall station in between the two. Fourth, lack of historical buildings. The blight elimination of the 1960s and 1970s that created these deep concentrations of public housing and poverty demolished many buildings that could have been considered for historic designation. Old Town Mall and its suroundings today will hardly be missed. Lastly, the East Baltimore Biotech Park. The East Baltimore Biotech Park will have a domino effect on surounding areas thus creating a demand for housing of all types.Normally when public housing is demolished what goes in its place are fewer housing units at a lower density. In this case it will be just the opposite. When you add up the number of units demolished in Douglass Homes, Somerset Homes and Extension, Monument House and Latrobe Homes the number is staggering. Although the end result will mean fewer public housing units the overall number of units will be higher. The new development will use the traditional urban grid and contain mid to high rise apartments, condos, office buildings and a hotel, all with ground floor retail and underground parking garages. In short the site will be mixed use in and mixed income with some public housing units sprinkled throughout. Unlike Old Town and Penn Fallsway the Douglass Homes site will feature town homes with two floors stacked on top of each other for a total of four floors per structure. Since the Old Town Mall area isn't too close to the harbor it can get away with taller buildings. Baltimore's skyline will surely expand and cover more ground once complete.
Now what would you do with Old Town Mall? I look forward to watching your responses on You Tube!