Last night, at Metro Gallery on Charles Street, local residents got their first chance to meet with the planners of the Charles North Vision Plan, the vast development project that aims to transform the area north of Penn Station into a cultural, business, and transportation hub.
The Central Baltimore Partnership, a coalition of 31 groups including the mayor’s office, several departments of the city government, JHU, MICA, and the University of Baltimore, hosted the Open House. The standing-room-only crowd of about 200 sampled snacks provided by local restaurants Station North Café and Joe’s Squared Pizza and listened as Joe McNeely, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, presented its Charles North Vision Plan.
The recurring theme of the night was “Slow down!” McNeely and Fred Lazarus, MICA president and chairman of the CBP Board of Directors, felt continually compelled to remind the assembled—many of whom questioned the development’s impact on the surrounding neighborhoods’ current residents and businesses—that the process was in its earliest of stages.
“We’re at the beginning of this, we’re not at the middle or the end,” said Lazarus, and McNeely reminded the assembled that Harbor Place took 30 years from conception to completion (an apt comparison since the same firm, BTA+/Matrix Settles, that designed Harbor Place has drawn up the plans for Charles North).
For now, the CBP is focused on acquiring several specific properties, like the Chesapeake Restaurant and the former Chateau Hotel, and targeting them for development. McNeely said the first 5 to 10 years would be spent building critical mass with individual development projects like these, and that some of the plan’s biggest components, like Asia Town, won’t be completed until the final stages.
He described four “anchors” of the vision:
1. Penn Station and its immediate environs, which, he said could be transformed into a bustling complex of retail shops, hotels, small-footprint residential high-rises, and public space, and utilize robotic parking to add thousands of parking spaces.
2. The corner of North Avenue and Charles Street, which will see a revival and expansion of the North Avenue Market, a renovation of the Parkway Theater and other dilapidated buildings, and become a primary destination for fairs and other events.
3. Further north, the area centered along 20th Street was pictured transformed into Asia Town, with Chinese-style chop shops and an Asian department store. Interestingly, he mentioned that developer Tony Cheng, who will spearhead Asia Town, wants it to be Chinatown, but the CBP is resisting in light of Korean and Indian communities in the area.
4. To the west, a creative/design zone anchored by a MICA studio center, a new design center, and galleries.
Once the question and answer session began, locals pushed for details about how developers would get funding given the current credit crunch (and how much of that funding would come from local sources), if they would provide economic assistance to local residents and businesses, and whether existing arts organizations would be involved in the planning.
Time and time again, Lazarus and McNeely repeated variations on “We don’t know yet.” They repeated their desires to work with all stakeholders in the community, encouraged everyone interested to come to their planning meetings, and to contact them with specific questions, but ultimately said they were at the “vision” stage and did not yet have details on funding or the fate of specific properties.
They did offer one reassurance: Barabara Robinson, state delegate for the 40th District, sat in the front row for the presentation and, afterward, asked if any homeowners would be affected by the CBP’s acquisitions. Lazarus reassured the assembled that all acquisitions are of commercial properties.
Overall, the night included many lofty and laudable ideas and schemes, but we know about the best-laid plans. And so, apparently, does the community. Those who attended the meeting seemed geniunely excited by all the talk, but understandably suspicious. Having been burned by promises before, many seemed content to see if the developers' actions speak as loudly as their words.