Charles Street

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Gerald Neily

Aug 11, 2010, 7:19:03 AM8/11/10
On today's Sun op-ed page, Janet Heller says that Charles Street has been neglected though downtown:,0,3672395.story

Unfortunately, no street in Baltimore has had more attention lavished on it than Charles Street. This seems to be the best they've got. Trees have been planted and replanted zillions of times, sidewalks have gotten makeovers several times, and all sorts of projects have been done to supposedly revitalize it.

Recently, there's been the Basilica prayer garden which replaced the allegedly unsaveable old Rochambeau apartment building. And most recently, there's been the Charm City Circulator to save people from having to ride that dastardly MTA that expends hundreds of millions of our tax dollars every year running buses to who-knows-where. The City decided the Circulator was so important that they closed up all the city swimming pools and laid off and furloughed a bunch of city employees to pay for it.

Now the powers that be want to save downtown by putting dots on a map:

Every so often, a really "visionary" idea shows up, like having the traffic squeeze into both directions instead of just one, with the spillover just disappearing out of consciousness. One wonders why New York never realized that the reason their Fifth Avenue is so moribund on the east side of Manhattan is because it is one-way. Just recently, I sensed the cute girls on "Gossip Girl" complaining on their way to the high school cotillion that their teen angst is mostly caused by Fifth Avenue being one-way.

But Janet, I'm afraid this is the best that Baltimore can do.

James Hunt

Aug 11, 2010, 8:54:49 AM8/11/10

James Hunt

Aug 11, 2010, 9:30:51 AM8/11/10

Whoops. Sorry about duplicating that last post.

Gerry, I agree with you in the main (big surprise there) but would suggest that our Charles Street (and I think here Janet Heller is really only addressing the segment from Fayette to Centre) is not so much analogous to Fifth Avenue as to the segment of Boston's Charles Street that runs along the western base of Beacon Hill from the Charles River to the Common and Public Garden.

Here's a pic:

Like our Charles Street, Boston's Charles Street also carries mostly one-way "through" traffic (as opposed to "to" traffic, i.e. people who are going to its shops and restaurants) and has narrow sidewalks.  The difference is that it's much more lively than our Charles Street. Why? Because it has a neighborhood to draw customers from. Not the wealthy Brahmins we often associate with Beacon Hill, but the up-and-comers who live in the walk-up flats in that part of the Hill and nearby Back Bay. College students, young couples, and so forth.

Frank Shivers once observed that the area of 19th century homes in Cathedral Hill demolished when Preston Gardens was built could've been our Charles Street's "Beacon Hill." Instead, it's just a semi-grand empty space.

The answer for Charles Street lies not in trees or traffic patterns, but in building a neighborhood of middle class patrons who use it for more or less daily shopping needs. This is happening, though more slowly than we might hope.

Tinkering with trees and traffic are fine, I suppose, but more residents will make the most impact. Three areas where this should happen in a post to follow.

Richard Chambers

Aug 11, 2010, 10:05:10 AM8/11/10
What's the chance of some of the hideous parking lot scars that dot Mount Vernon (at Charles & Read, Charles & Eager, West side of the 1000 Blk of Charles, the Maryland Club parking lot in the 900 blk of Charles, etc) actually being turned into something useful? Like, say, apartment buildings? I've always found the persistent of surface lots in the blocks north of the Square to be disconcerting. Not what you would expect in a historic district.

Gerald Neily

Aug 11, 2010, 10:22:41 AM8/11/10
Oh darn, you guys are being constructive and looking at the big picture. 

That's not how we're supposed to play the game !!!!!!!!!!

We have been told that housing in buildings like the Rochambeau Apartments is a scourge upon the area and we much tear them down so we can reveal the inner beauty of the neighboring parking garages.

I'm sorry, I'm in a sarcastic mood today...

James Hunt

Aug 11, 2010, 10:25:04 AM8/11/10
On Wed, Aug 11, 2010 at 10:05 AM, Richard Chambers <> wrote:
What's the chance of some of the hideous parking lot scars that dot Mount Vernon (at Charles & Read, Charles & Eager, West side of the 1000 Blk of Charles, the Maryland Club parking lot in the 900 blk of Charles, etc) actually being turned into something useful? Like, say, apartment buildings? I've always found the persistent of surface lots in the blocks north of the Square to be disconcerting. Not what you would expect in a historic district.


One of the hitches to developing many of those lots north of Mt. Vernon Place is height restrictions. This article from The Sun in 2005 sums it up pretty well.

I once attended a presentation by Kingdon Gould III, who owns the lot at Charles and Read. His argument, basically, is that to provide the sort of amenities (e.g. 24 hour doorman) he provides at his (very nice) projects in DC, he needs a certain number of units to cover the costs. At one point, he proposed two midrises on the SW and NW corners of Charles and Read. The acquisition and very fine rehab by Charlie Duff and Co. of the MacGillavrays and GAMPYs building on the NW corner put the kibosh on that, so he proposed a much taller single building for the SW corner than the community wanted.

So ... that parking lots is always full. Not a lot of urgency for him to develop it. Probably ditto for the lot at Charles and Eager, which he also owns.

He was involved in the development of the Fitzgerald at UB, so it isn't as if he's abandoned Baltimore or even the neighborhood. It's just that he's going to hold out to get what he wants.

Richard Chambers

Aug 11, 2010, 10:46:59 AM8/11/10
Here's a question - what is everyone's feeling on height restrictions in a place like Mount Vernon? I have never had any interest in them, particularly when they stifle growth in commercial corridors like the upper sections of Charles Street. But I would like the opinion of others.

-----Original Message-----
From: James Hunt
Sent: Aug 11, 2010 10:25 AM
Subject: Re: [BALTOmorrow] Charles Street

Jed Weeks

Aug 11, 2010, 10:50:02 AM8/11/10
There are at least 5-7 buildings around 200ft in Mt. Vernon, correct? A few of them are even more modern style apartment complexes, and quite ugly (Horizon House, St. Paul at Chase, Gallery Tower, 1001 St. Paul St, etc). I understand the historic nature of the neighborhood, and how it should be valued and preserved as much as possible. I also understand the unwillingness to bow down against principles for one developer to get his way.

That being said, when it is 200ft modern buildings that will attract middle class and wealthy city residents to a historic neighborhood vs. parking lots that massively detract from the beauty of the neighborhood, I think it's a no-brainer to make sacrifices.

I think a lot of this has to do with outdated views of the city held by residents in the area. I've been on the circulator bus and literally heard a woman in her 70s say "This bus is so much cleaner and quieter and more spacious than the city bus I remember!" While I might be in the minority here in appreciating the circulator bus, I can honestly say the thing is louder on the inside than the MTA New Flyer Hybrids (what is with that beeping?), and is certainly less spacious than the 40/41ft MTA buses.

This, along with many other Mt. Vernon "fears" I hear, make me think a lot of people living in Mt. Vernon still have a late 80s/early 90s view of the city. I might be young, but I grew up here during that time, and it's clear we are in a very different place. I wonder if attitudes in the area will begin to change as new community leadership evolves over time?


James Hunt

Aug 11, 2010, 10:52:26 AM8/11/10
I like sarcasm myself. Puns are fine, too. Litotes, synecdoche ... bring 'em on.

Now, where was I? Ah, yes ...

I suspect Charles from the Monument to Penn Station will continue knitting itself back together. Although it's struggling to find owners, the development north of Aegon in the 1200 block eliminated an ugly parking lot, and UB's new law library will eliminate another on the NE corner of Charles and Mt. Royal before long.

If Gould can somehow find common ground with the neighbors, the lots at Read and Eager will go in the next economic "up" cycle. The Maryland Club almost had a very handsome development on its and adjacent lots to the south back in the 80s, but financing fell through when it lost a lead tenant, if I recall correctly. If Gould moves, though, there could be renewed interest.

South of the monument, however, is a different story. There, the gaps aren't so much the problem as is the need for more local feet on street. Between Saratoga and Centre, there are three areas that could be more intensely developed.

Charles and Centre -- because its in a valley created by ye olde Tiber Creek (now consigned to ye olde sewers), height isn't as much of an issue here as elsewhere. Were I Gould, I'd help the Westminster House relocate to Charles and Eager (giving its elderly residents the opportunity to walk to a nearby grocery store) and redevelop that old concrete monstrosity and the parking lot to the south.

Charles and Pleasant -- the high ground between Mt. Vernon and downtown and the centerpoint in this segment of Charles Street is occupied by the really ugly and unfortunately strategically located (for its purpose, i.e. telephone switching equipment, etc.) black granite Verizon building. Somehow, someway this beautiful piece of real estate needs to become hundreds of apartments. Height shouldn't be an issue here; in fact, the higher the better.

St. Paul, Franklin, and Mulberry -- the lot here is a gateway to Mt. Vernon from the east via the Orleans Street viaduct. Another perfect place to go tall. Yes, the vista of the Basilica would be lost, but the gain in residents would more than offset it.

Speaking of the Basilica: if the original plan for the Rochambeau site goes through (subterranean parking, museum/restaurant facing Charles, larger garden open to the public on top) it will be a much greater amenity for the neighborhood than the dozen or so units the building could have held would have been.


Aug 11, 2010, 3:32:34 PM8/11/10
to BALTOmorrow
Charles St has had the most attention, but it still needs more, like
most other streets with more enforcement of housing/building codes.

As I've said before, too many solutions are not directed at the real
problem. The problem is that there is not enough of an economy. A
strong local economy would fix almost ALL problems that we ponder on
boards like this.

There simply isn't enough business going on in Baltimore to fix up all
the neglected properties AND build new ones. I'm certain that crime,
or perception of crime is what keeps new businesses from elsewhere
from setting up shop or expanding with a regional branch.

(Nevertheless, I believe crime is down at reason #3 for the reason why
regionals don't move to the City, after property taxes and schools.)

The GBC and like must concentrate on the economic backbone of the City
first--like the Port and the Howard St. Tunnel replacement--and bring
new tax-paying businesses into town, instead of slots and their
obsolete Red Line. The whole tourism market is tapped out, too. No
surprise those unfinished hotels are up for auction.

With regard to Mt. Vernon, they rightfully want to maintain some sense
of consistent scale in the neighborhood, esp. on Charles St. You can
see what high-rise development has done to certain parts of North
Chicago. The neighborhoods aren't bad there, but the results have
certainly damaged the integrity of some sections.

IIRC, the limit for most of Mt. Vernon was proposed to be 100 feet,
but there are density bonuses that in some areas could allow building
up to 180'. I hate the Gould lots as much as anyone, as I live next to
the Charles/Eager one (the worst). But Gould's argument is perfectly
sound and reasonable, esp. given the crappy economy which I doubt will
fade anytime soon.

We can only build so much before the reality that JOBS are needed for
people to fill the apartments. Places far uglier (or blander) than
Baltimore generate jobs and aren't pedestrian friendly or have any
nice urban fabric, so the fabric isn't required to get people to a
city. Bad design in Balto. makes life worse, but good won't
necessarily generate plentiful new activity (sections of Fells Point
are about as good as you can get for walking and still have vacanies.)
My proposal here, short of us attempting to attract new businesses
ourselves, would be to

--work to improve public safety through community involvement and
--make the public/government aware of the importance of our economic
backbone: the Port and rail connections
--ensure infrastructure rehabs and rebuilds are designed to improve
urban fabric as well as performance; reduce deferred maintenance
--have long term comprehensive regional planning (with long term
outlook on capital transit constructions, building incrementally)
--have a well-operated transit system with strongly integrated bus

Note that my recommendations don't really require gobs of extra money
we wouldn't otherwise spend anyway....


James Hunt

Aug 11, 2010, 3:59:00 PM8/11/10
Nate --

All good points; can't think of one I disagree with. Most are somewhat long-term, of course, while Janet Hellman in The Sun was pointing to some short-term (trees, code enforcement) issues.

Haven't looked closely at the Baltimore apartment market recently, but not so long ago people like David Hillman of Southern Management were _extremely_ bullish on the center city market and Mt. Vernon. I think projects can happen.


Aug 11, 2010, 4:31:07 PM8/11/10
to BALTOmorrow
My perception is that Hillman is certainly one of the "real"
developers out there and seems to have consistently delivered good
products. I admittedly have not yet read the Hellman piece. Projects
can happen, and I think will, but slowly. I very much believe the
rental market is strong right now because so few people can get
housing loans. That's gonna change somewhat when credit becomes more
available. Many of the apartment people will buy a house.

I would MUCH rather see codes strongly enforced and our existing
historic building stock renovated and upgraded than have all the lots
filled in and still have scores of deteriorated properties. It's
always cool to have new construction, but I love it when places like
the Brexton get overhauled. The urban gangrene is more dangerous than
the long sitting parking lots, although admittedly less sexy

Richard Chambers

Aug 11, 2010, 5:10:37 PM8/11/10

As someone who sat on the board of directors of Baltimore Heritage for 4 years, I can honestly say that I love historic buildings and agree that we need to focus on restoring our existing urban fabric. But I would argue that those surface parking lots on Charles Street contribute to blight and prevent many of the older properties from getting restored. The lack of visible investment probably puts off a lot of people who might be interested in renovating an historic property. I think the community association should be working with developers to get high density residential units constructed during this period when the rental market is actually on an upswing. I would love to see high rise apartment buildings on those lots and the sooner the better.

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