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Joe Nathanson: All aboard at Station North

More than 200 people had signed up for the opportunity to take a “Sneak Peek” at the space that is home to the once and future Chesapeake Restaurant. The event, sponsored by 1000 Friends of Maryland, the citizens group promoting sound development practices across the state, was to mark the impending reopening of the long-vacant, storied restaurant at the corner of Charles and Lanvale streets in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. But it became an occasion to celebrate all that is lively and reawakening in this critical section of real estate at the center of the region.

This was evident with the very first speaker in a lineup of 10-minute TED talks, developer Michael Beatty. For the better part of the last two decades, Beatty has been working with bakery magnate and co-founder of H&S Properties Development, John Paterakis, to transform land on the periphery of downtown Baltimore into the new, dense urban environment filled with trendy shops, restaurants, a multiscreen cinema, several hotels, residences and office space that we know as Harbor East.

Beatty has recently formed his own development firm, Beatty Development Group LLC, and has turned his attention to other parts of the city. One of those is the block immediately south of the Chesapeake’s location, the surface lot between Charles and St. Paul streets serving as parking for commuters and others traveling by Amtrak or MARC trains leaving Penn Station.

In his brief slide presentation, Beatty actually laid out a much broader vision for the station area. It includes capturing the value of vacant parcels, which now happen to be one level down from the current street level, with new additions of retail and office space. It includes retaining the classic architecture of the existing train station, but augmenting that space with a new translucent roof arching above the intercity and commuter train tracks, in effect creating an entirely new train station. And the vision includes greening the environment, both for visitors arriving in Baltimore and for pedestrians traversing the long and generally dreary bridges connecting downtown to the station area.

Another visionary heard from by the attendees was Ernst Valery, a young urban planner and serial entrepreneur. Valery is owner of the Chesapeake and a partner in the development team that earlier brought the Milk & Honey Market to the Medical Arts Building in Mount Vernon. In its new life, the soon-to-open restaurant is described by the team as “a neighborhood eatery offering an outstanding farm- and fishery-to-table menu.”

The vitality of the stretch of Charles Street from Mount Royal Avenue to North Avenue is punctuated by the many diverse events recently taking place along the street. A few blocks south of the restaurant site, we had Vice President Joe Biden and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan among the notables at the formal opening of the University of Baltimore’s new John and Frances Angelos Law Center, an investment of $112 million in private and public funds. Immediately to the north is the Charles Theater, hosting many of the screenings that make up the Maryland Film Festival. And on the very evening of the “Sneak Peek,” there was “the Gathering,” consisting of more than a half-dozen food trucks parked in the southern section of the traffic circle serving Penn Station.

But the new-found vitality centered on the Charles Street axis does not consist of one-time events. As Maryland Institute College of Art President Fred Lazarus pointed out, his own institution, which he has led for nearly four decades, is contributing to the expanding arts and cultural offerings in the Station North district. The Load of Fun building, home to a variety of artists’ studios and performance spaces, closed due to building permit violations, is about to reopen with new tenants. Jubilee Baltimore is moving ahead with its plans for the redevelopment of a former radio studio for new uses on North Avenue. Tying all of this activity together is the Central Baltimore Partnership, a collaboration of many public, private and community institutions, launched through the joint efforts of Johns Hopkins University, the University of Baltimore and MICA. This partnership is focused on the continuing, positive development of the neighborhoods stretching north from Penn Station to University Parkway.

Baltimore has seen a number of large-scale development proposals that have limped along or languished due to legal entanglements and financial disappointments. In contrast, there is a sense that the Station North area has passed a tipping point and, while public attention will still be required, much of its future growth can occur organically. It’s a refreshing change.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.