Baltimore Reborn, Reimagined

Nov 25, 2013

Some say cities are being re-born in patches, spreading like pieces of pepperoni all over the urban landscape.

Baltimore could fit that description. Pods of development are popping up everywhere. A new hotel here, a new restaurant there, even a shopping mall inside the city limits.

Much of the new growth can be seen along the waterfront extending from the Inner Harbor east and south toward the Key Bridge.  Water and warehouses and profound social change are painting a new face on the city. The bigger development efforts – quite a few of them – follow people. In this case, mostly young people.

They are car-phobic. They are green almost naturally, absorbing and living with a consciousness their parents never had. The ethic of conservation and living with a smaller footprint is part of the phenomenon.

Jay Brodie, who shepherded development and housing in Baltimore for more than 40 years, says the city has been slow to see its own potential. Some of the first development risks have been taken by outsiders.

From a place people wanted nothing to do with 40 years ago, Baltimore offers a new vibrancy – and a new set of demands from a new citizenry. The newcomers want better mass transit – subway and bus and circulator to go with their bicycles and water taxis. If they ever have to park a car, they want to park it once only. No moving around from cleaner, to grocery to yoga class.

The new city is a remarkable off shoot of the old. People are living in the buildings that once housed the products made here. The change has been hidden because it has been incremental and because the look of the re-purposed buildings hasn’t changed much.

What we are seeing is a traditional downtown transformed into a residential neighborhood, Brodie says. You can see it every morning, he says: on jammed MARC trains from Baltimore to Washington or on the light rail platforms with passengers headed for Hunt Valley. City dwellers are leaving their downtown residences for work outside the city.

The instant urban neighborhood called Harbor East might be Exhibit A. “If you hadn’t been to Baltimore for 20 years” Brodie says, “you can think this is sort of a mirage.” It’s not a mirage. Baltimore has re-introduced itself now as a magnet for baby boomers and empty nesters to cost-conscious, green-leaning millenials.

Many other surprising moments are there beyond Inner Harbor East for the newcomer or the native returned. What you see here reflects the new and very un-Baltimore interest in water-side living and design, Brodie says. He points at one of the new condo and apartment projects. The re-purposed buildings reflect what has been called the young, creative class insistence on style.

“This isn’t the old Baltimore brick box. This is a combination of brick and metal panel and a lot of glass; and balconies where you can entertain your friends. Quite handsome, I think,” he says.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says the new city attracts new residents because it’s safer. Also, she says, because a major school construction program promises to be an attraction for those who have children to be educated.

Style is a big part of it, the mayor says. “It creates a buzz and those late teens and twenties eventually, you know, started getting jobs, start getting families and they want to remain cool and remain in cool vibrant areas. You can see it in different pockets throughout the city, this renewed vitality.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Carly Page is an almost perfect example of the new city lover. Car-less and partial-to-bikes, the Galway, N.Y. native finished her PhD at the University of Maryland Hospital recently and moved on to work at Johns Hopkins. She’s a bio-sciences researcher, one of the fields well-represented among the new urbanites. She lives on Federal Hill, one of the magnets for millenials. She and her friends are developing a deep loyalty to city life.

“I know a couple of people who were looking for new jobs and refused to find jobs where you had to commute outside the city,” she says.

Development in Baltimore is trying to keep pace. Canton, Brodie says, is an example. It might not have converted as quickly to the new economy but for some un-Baltimore-like risk taking. Before he ran into various problems, the Baltimore banker and businessman Ed Hale threw up an imposing office building off Boston Street that some thought of as an ego boost.

It turned out to be a turning point.

Canton Crossing, the shopping center that opened recently to drum rolls, makes Brodie’s point about Baltimore’s market and its slow appetite for business risk: only a few years ago, this project would have seemed too bold a venture. Carly Page and her friends have elevated it to can’t-miss status.  Developers didn’t miss what was happening.

Brodie says the numbers – the size of the market – built caution into the equation -- historically.  But developers didn’t miss this change. They [looked north and saw] Brewers Hill with housing and office space and renovated row houses and said there’s a customer base here – and it’s also two minutes from 95,” he says.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball or vision to see what’s happening, he says. The new has merged with the old seamlessly – except for some of the old signage saved on purpose.

Doug Schmidt, one of the Canton Crossing developers, and his partner, Neil Tucker, say Baltimore is poised to gain more momentum. “Right now we are in an incredible cycle… We are really enthused about the future,” Tucker says.

There’s been a cycle within the cycle, says his partner Schmidt. “People are staying and the urban life style isn’t just a young people’s life style. It’s a life-long lifestyle.”

Betting on that, big box stores look at Baltimore now and see a stable market, says Rawlings-Blake. Years of recruiting these stores – largely in vain until just recently– has led to a moment when these companies are competing for the best locations in some parts of the city.

Correction: The audio for this story has been corrected from the original story broadcast on 11-25-13, which misidentified a voice. Also, the web story posted here has been fixed to attribute the correct quotes to Doug Schmidt and Neil Tucker.