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Charles Winston, standing in front of the Nu 2 U Thrift Store he and his wife operate at the Old Town Mall, says: ‘If they could do something positive for the area, it would be for the better.’ (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Same old, same Old Town: Challenges familiar

The latest attempt to redevelop the Old Town Mall and the nearby Somerset Homes properties in East Baltimore faces significant challenges.

Baltimore Development Corp. and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City requested proposals for development on Thursday for about 16 acres of property separated by the Old Town Mall Historic District and a 90-unit apartment complex not included in the request. But the city has tried various urban renewal efforts and issued requests for proposals in the past that have failed.

“It’s been a wasteland for years,” said Al Barry, a prominent land use consultant and owner of AB Associates.

The request calls for mixed-use development that “provides the density, integrated mix of commercial and residential uses, housing product mix, transit connectivity, public space and amenities necessary to sustain” a vibrant urban community.

But trying to reach that goal requires overcoming some significant hurdles.

Barry said the area suffers from a “chicken and egg” dilemma, where it’s unclear whether it needs more retail to attract residents or whether commercial will come to the area once there’s the proper population density.

Another challenge to redevelopment is that Interstate 83 makes it hard to get to the Old Town area. Barry, the former assistant planning director for the Baltimore City Planning Department, said a plan that he and clients put together about a decade ago to take down the lower portion of the expressway and convert it into a boulevard would help.

“At some point, the city is going to have to face that fact and begin some strategic planning as to when the expressway should come down, because at some point it has to come down because they can’t afford to rebuild it,” he said.

He said there are factors that could make the project a success, such as serving as a new neighborhood that would be important to the nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital complex. He said the area may eventually be as important to the hospital as the East Baltimore Development Inc. project, a planned new neighborhood which is being funded in part by Hopkins.

“There are several things that are happening that I think will mean a more promising future, as long as the right plan comes up,” Barry said. “My instinct is the right plan would not include something that concentrates heavily on commercial.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also expressed confidence in the request for proposal attracting a project that would turn the blighted shopping district around.

“The revitalization of Old Town Mall and the former Somerset Public Housing sites provides a tremendous development opportunity to include retail and housing,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. “The proximity to Johns Hopkins Hospital, downtown and key arts and cultural destinations make this a desirable location.”

Residents who work and volunteer in the area hope that this time the right plan will come along.

Bob Brown, president of the Box 414 Association, which operates the Baltimore City Fire Museum in the Old Town Mall, just welcomed a rehabbed 1944 L-Model Mack Baltimore fire truck and was optimistic about the latest request for proposal.

“I think it’ll succeed. Just having our museum here is a big help,” Brown said.

Charles Winston, 42, attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School on Orleans Street and worked at the old Polock Johnny’s, a famed Old Town establishment that specialized in Polish sausages.

“You remember people coming through getting clothes for Easter,” Winston said.

Now, he operates the Nu 2 U Thrift Store with his wife in the Old Town Mall Historic District and hopes to see better days return.

“If they could do something positive for the area, it would be for the better,” he said.