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The Nose

Into the West

Posted 10/10/2001

"What's going on?" the lady in green asked, setting her voluminous shopping bag down at the corner of Lexington and Howard streets. "What's the big event?" The dark-suited guy nearby with a wire in his ear never took his eyes off the stream of pedestrians. "Oh," he said casually, "it's the grand opening of the building here."

And so it was. Oct. 4 marked the debut of the Atrium, a 173-unit apartment complex carved out of the erstwhile Hecht Co. building that's loomed seven stories over this corner since 1924. That the event brought out squads of guys with wires in their ears was a testament to the bigwigs partaking of the festivities, a who's who of city and state politicos and power brokers. This was the first major ribbon-cutting of downtown's much-touted $800-million west-side redevelopment. Finally, there was something to touch and see.

But if the event was all pinstriped hobnobbing and happy applause, the Nose couldn't help but ponder the challenges the city faces in making this massive, expensive urban-renewal effort happen. The Atrium represents only a small chunk of the private investment which west-side project planners are banking on--about 1/20--and it opened with a vacancy rate that would make most developers wince: Just 20 of the 173 apartments are leased. And with the shadow of recession darkening the local development scene, it's hard to imagine a run on the beautifully renovated but rather pricey units (starting at $752 for a 414-square-foot studio apartment) starting soon.

Ah, but everyone loves a celebration. So the Nose followed the well-heeled crowd through a slick lobby and into the atrium of the building's name, an impressive open-aired courtyard where the Eubie Blake Jazz Trio noodled away. We traded pleasantries with state Sen. Barbara Hoffman (D-Baltimore City/ County), who recalled the Hecht's of back when--"and it never looked like this." (Indeed: The atrium was literally sliced out of the center of the former store.) Then, amid the sound of pounding hammers, the speechifying began. Baseball/legal/real-estate mogul Peter Angelos spoke, as did Gov. Parris Glendening and Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. All were full of glory, thanks, and praise. But amid the kudos and revelry, the name of the Weinberg Foundation, which kick-started the west-side initiative three years ago, was barely heard--a function, perhaps, of rumors that its plans for a glitzy glass-and-steel retail/cinema complex along the south side of Lexington Street have come to a dead end. (Weinberg was rarely name-checked from the podium, the once-touted mall/movieplex not at all.)

While clearly basking in the moment, David Hillman, CEO of Atrium developer Southern Management Corp., implicitly acknowledged the uncertainty in his turn at the podium. "Being a pioneer is not my thing," he said. "Couldn't you please speed things along? I need some competition, fast." In reply, Mayor Martin O'Malley--taking time off from his new job as America's foremost expert on terrorism prevention--stepped up to the mic to note that just the day before, the city's Board of Estimates approved the $6 million sale of an entire west-side block to Bank of America for a planned $60 million residential/retail complex dubbed Centerpoint. Everyone applauded the news (including, the Nose noted, city Comptroller Joan Pratt, who cast the board's lone vote against the deal).

As things wound down, we spied Jimmy Rouse, head of the Historic Charles Street Association, in the crowd. (We'd know those tufted eyebrows anywhere.) He too was impressed by the Atrium. And he too took note of the lovefest atmosphere, with politicians, developers, and preservationists all trading back slaps and attaboys. "Everyone's getting along," he mused. "Today."

But there are still prickly questions attending the mammoth west-side face-lift, Rouse warned--the role of displaced mom-and-pop merchants being just one. And he fears that, absent developers with some vision, the area will end up "looking like White Marsh."

Not even to mention the uncomfortable economic forecasts, the rain nobody involved wanted to dump on this particular parade. (Least of all the Nose--it is a really cool rehab.) We just hope the players can hang on to some of the day's spirit of goodwill. They'll need it.

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