‘A PLACE FOR ALL OF US TO GO’

A re­build of Bal­ti­more’s Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket is set to be­gin — too late for some ven­dors, but oth­ers are hope­ful

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Lor­raine Mirabella

Work is poised to be­gin as soon as Jan­uary on the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of Bal­ti­more’s Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket, but that’s a lit­tle too late for the Mary Mervis Del­i­catessen. The stall closed the day be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, a vic­tim of de­clin­ing traf­fic and sales. El­liott Bod­nar, owner of the deli, served up the last of his shrimp salad and corned beef sand­wiches and laid off his last three em­ploy­ees. He’d hoped the deli, a sta­ple of the West Side mar­ket for more than a cen­tury, would be part of Lex­ing­ton’s re­birth. In­stead, the busi­ness, which be­gan when a widow named Mary Mervis set up a may­on­naise stall in 1913, came to an end.

Af­ter years of plan­ning, the city is ex­pected to start raz­ing a por­tion of one of the coun­try’s old­est pub­lic mar­kets as early as next month to make way for a new warehouse-style build­ing more in tune with the de­sires

of modern con­sumers. Mer­chants will move from the 1980s-era Ar­cade into the main East Mar­ket by midJan­uary, clear­ing the way for the Ar­cade’s de­mo­li­tion and con­struc­tion of a light-filled, modern mar­ket shed.

Some mer­chants ea­gerly await the new build­ing. Not Bod­nar.

He said he lost cus­tomers and sales in the un­rest af­ter Fred­die Gray died from in­juries suf­fered while in po­lice cus­tody in 2015. The trend wors­ened this year af­ter changes in fed­eral rules meant he lost el­i­gi­bil­ity to ac­cept the food stamps used by many reg­u­lar cus­tomers.

More re­cently, he said he lost the sense of se­cu­rity he’d al­ways had in­side the mar­ket, even as crime wors­ened in the neigh­bor­hood around it. One day last month, sev­eral peo­ple chased one another into the mar­ket and a fight erupted in Bod­nar’s stall.

“It’s got­ten to a point I can’t do it any­more. I’m fed up,” said Bod­nar, 70,

torn about aban­don­ing loyal cus­tomers he’s be­friended. “I’m too old for the stress.”

The de­vel­op­ers be­hind the project say they hope to bring about change for the bet­ter in the mar­ket and sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood while pre­serv­ing the best parts of the his­toric in­sti­tu­tion.

“Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket is for the en­tire city of Bal­ti­more,” said Thibault Manekin, a part­ner with Sea­wall De­vel­op­ment, which built Rem­ing­ton food hall R. House and was hired by the city last year. “It should unite us and pro­vide a place for all of us to go.”

Sea­wall, which took on the project in Oc­to­ber 2018, en­vi­sions a mar­ket with a di­verse se­lec­tion of pre­pared and fresh foods in a build­ing that repli­cates the mar­ket’s look in 1910. The de­vel­op­ers are sched­uled to close on a $40 mil­lion fi­nanc­ing pack­age this month.

By mid-Jan­uary, all ten­ants in the Ar­cade will move to empty stalls in the older, maze-like East Mar­ket. The Ar­cade will be razed. A new South Mar­ket will be built on an ad­ja­cent park­ing lot, fill­ing the block be­tween Paca and Eutaw streets and open­ing onto an out­door plaza where the Ar­cade stands now. The East Mar­ket will re­main open un­til the new struc­ture opens by the end of 2021, then will be re­de­vel­oped in a later phase.

Young Lee, who has owned Park’s Ham­burg­ers with her hus­band for 31 years, is pre­par­ing to move from the Ar­cade to the East Mar­ket.

Busi­ness is not what it once was, Lee said. Stalls have closed and the lunch crowds thinned, es­pe­cially as of­fice work­ers left. In 2014, the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion moved 1,600 work­ers out of two blocks of of­fices near the mar­ket.

“Very slow, this mar­ket, it’s very slow,” Lee said.

The cou­ple con­sid­ered mov­ing to another city pub­lic mar­ket but just liked Lex­ing­ton bet­ter. They hope to hold on in tem­po­rary space, then ap­ply to join the new mar­ket. Then they could re­tire even­tu­ally with­out hav­ing to be up­rooted again.

“We want to stay here in this mar­ket,” Lee said.

Joshua Cho still is con­sid­er­ing what it would take for him to stay in a mar­ket where he has run Har­bor Fish for 31 years.

“I’d love to, but it de­pends,” Cho said. “Is it worth it or not?”

He would need to re­place or move ex­pen­sive com­mer­cial equip­ment needed to sell fresh seafood, such as an ice ma­chine and re­frig­er­ated stor­age. He’d need to ne­go­ti­ate a new lease. And he would count on the new space to bring back the busi­ness that has fallen off by about half, even among tourists.

Manekin said he ex­pects “an in­clu­sive, far-reach­ing re­cruit­ment and se­lec­tion process that will honor those ven­dors that have been in the mar­ket a long time and cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties” for new ones. “It’s re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant to keep some of the long-stand­ing busi­nesses.”

The pop­u­lar Fai­d­ley’s Seafood, in the mar­ket since 1886 and known for its fam­ily crab­cake recipe, is ex­pected to stay on as an an­chor, Manekin said. Fai­d­ley’s owner Bill Devine con­firmed that.

The plans rep­re­sent the lat­est ver­sion of a mar­ket that has rein­vented it­self re­peat­edly since its be­gin­nings on the site in 1782. A long shed­like build­ing in the early 20th cen­tury fea­tured out­door, awning-cov­ered stalls stacked with fruits and veg­eta­bles. Af­ter that build­ing was gut­ted by fire in 1949, it was re­placed by the East Mar­ket in 1951.

But shop­per traf­fic de­clined as modern su­per­mar­kets emerged, the sub­urbs grew and re­tail­ers left the Howard Street de­part­ment store dis­trict by the late 1970s. The 1980s brought con­struc­tion of the Ar­cade, a food-hall-style ad­di­tion with an up­per mez­za­nine, cen­tral seat­ing area and stage. In re­cent years, crime and drug deal­ing out­side the mar­ket’s doors pushed more cus­tomers and ven­dors away. Cur­rently, about 50 ven­dors re­main.

Even as plans for re­de­vel­op­ment be­gan to emerge and com­mu­nity mem­bers took part in de­vel­oper-led plan­ning ses­sions, some ten­ants closed up. A pizze­ria, a deli, a seafood and sushi stand, and other stalls in the Ar­cade have emp­tied.

“Ten­ants left vol­un­tar­ily once they rec­on­ciled that cus­tomer in­ter­est had de­clined be­yond a point of sus­tain­ing their busi­ness,” said Robert E. Thomas, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Bal­ti­more Pub­lic Mar­kets Corp.

Manekin ac­knowl­edged that “peo­ple have stopped go­ing to Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket the way they once had.”

The re­de­vel­op­ment aims to re­verse that trend, fo­cus­ing not only on the phys­i­cal build­ing but also the en­vi­ron­ment out­side the mar­ket in a city be­set by vi­o­lence.

The project can serve as a strong an­chor for the West Side, at­tract­ing new in­vest­ment and con­tin­u­ing the mo­men­tum of other nearby re­de­vel­op­ment, said Coun­cil­man Eric Costello, whose dis­trict in­cludes Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket. Apart­ments and a ho­tel are planned for the for­mer Drovers & Me­chan­ics Na­tional Bank at Fayette and North Eutaw streets, and de­vel­op­ers have of­fered new pro­pos­als for the failed Su­perblock, down­town’s for­mer shop­ping dis­trict where re­newal has stalled for decades.

“We’re al­ready see­ing signs of ad­di­tional in­vest­ment on down­town’s West Side,” Costello said. “You’re go­ing to start to see holes in that area start to fill in, and more foot traf­fic will ul­ti­mately lead to more peo­ple spend­ing money.”

Oth­ers are skep­ti­cal. Too many pro­pos­als to spur rein­vest­ment on the West Side never ma­te­ri­al­ized or failed to have the hoped-for ef­fect, said Stephen J.K. Wal­ters, chief econ­o­mist for the Mary­land Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute. Wal­ters, who pro­posed reme­dies for ur­ban de­cline in his book “Boom Towns,” ar­gues that high city tax rates re­pel in­vest­ment, even in ar­eas near big projects, such as the mar­ket, that get tax re­lief and grants. (The $40 mil­lion project is be­ing fi­nanced through debt and fed­eral tax cred­its as well as with a $7.25 mil­lion city grant.)

“I’m not op­ti­mistic about this project pro­duc­ing a turn­around,” Wal­ters said. “If it doesn’t make sense to in­vest, prox­im­ity to a sub­si­dized project doesn’t change that fun­da­men­tal and un­for­tu­nate fact.”

The city’s pub­lic safety prob­lems fur­ther hurt de­mand, he said.

Sea­wall said its com­mu­nity-based work groups are tack­ling safety is­sues, with in­put from po­lice from the city and the nearby Univer­sity of Mary­land, Bal­ti­more. That com­mit­tee is just one of sev­eral; another made up of res­i­dents, busi­ness own­ers and pa­trons will se­lect ven­dors. They will re­view ap­pli­ca­tions and score them based on a set of cri­te­ria, then nar­row down ap­pli­cants.

About a third of the mar­ket’s ten­ants will sell pre­pared foods with the rest of­fer­ing a mix of pro­duce, meats, veg­eta­bles, fish, fruit and spe­cialty items — what Manekin called a “healthy mix, so it’s not just a food hall but a real pub­lic mar­ket.” He sees the mar­ket of­fer­ing not just space for 50 to 60 ven­dors, but sup­port from ex­perts to help them suc­ceed.

Plans have been ap­plauded by mer­chants such as Lynette Tar­rant, who sells leather ear­rings and other jew­elry, mostly on week­ends in tem­po­rary space, and be­longs to the ven­dor se­lec­tion com­mit­tee. Tar­rant used to run a per­ma­nent kiosk but closed it be­cause of frus­tra­tions over main­te­nance at the ag­ing build­ing. But she wants to open a per­ma­nent stand in the new mar­ket, and is urg­ing the city to spon­sor events as it once did, teach­ing schoolchil­dren ar­ti­san crafts, for in­stance.

De­spite the mar­ket’s trou­bles, she said, “peo­ple still come here. My mother’s in her 80s now, and she still comes here, and she shops and gets her fish and her veg­eta­bles.”

So does Cas­san­dra Dis­mal, a warehouse worker for Un­der Ar­mour, who eats lunch at the mar­ket ev­ery day. She likes the se­lec­tion, from cheeses­teak pitas and Chi­nese food to of­fer­ings at the Danc­ing Potato. Some­times she buys sausages to cook at home. Dur­ing a re­cent stop for lunch, Dis­mal was re­lieved to learn the mar­ket is not go­ing away.

“I re­ally en­joy com­ing down here,” Dis­mal said. “I love this mar­ket.”

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Joshua Cho, owner of Har­bor Fish, a stall in the old East Mar­ket build­ing, said he would like to go into the new mar­ket.

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket Ar­cade will be de­mol­ished as part of the ren­o­va­tions. The new South Mar­ket build­ing is slated to open in the sum­mer of 2021.

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