Michael Hunter remembers when he first visited Howard Street. It was 1994 — the year after he graduated from Cornell University — and the trip stands out in his mind because it’s where he bought his first beeper.
Now, more than 20 years later, the area remains much the way it was then. Maybe the biggest difference is pre-paid cellphone stores have replaced the pager shops. But Hunter has a vision for a 15-story mixed-use development in the 300 block of Howard Street. He believes the project can bring foot traffic back to a neighborhood that has been in decline since the big department stores moved from downtown decades ago.
“We believe if there was a destination for people to go to, anchored by people who live there, that you can see that type of dynamic. But it wouldn’t be because they are being attracted to big box retail — there’d be other new urban uses that we could bring to the table,” Hunter said.
On Thursday, Hunter, founder of The Washington Baltimore Development Group, and architecture firm Cho Benn Holback + Associates presented schematics for the project to the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel. The preliminary plan revealed a large structure on the east side of Howard Street, that maintains some of the brick facades of several older buildings on the block with a modern apartment building emerging from behind.
The proposed project’s site is in a historic district, but none of the buildings on the block have been designated as historic. That means any demolition required to develop the site would not require a review by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.
“I think the underlying theme here is we want to take the historic significance of the glory days of Howard Street and twist it with a modern relevance,” Hunter said. “The whole thought is that we would be the catalyst for the redevelopment of the Howard Street corridor.”
In recent years the city has made several efforts to try and revitalize the West Side. The ongoing legal drama regarding the proposed Super Block development best symbolizing the struggle to actually achieve that goal. But several proposed projects, including the possible redevelopment of Lexington Market, and replies to recent request for proposal by the Baltimore Development Corp. to make use of neglected buildings, have provided some optimism.
Hunter declined to say how many apartments are planned, how many square feet of retail would be built or even how many parking spaces would be included in the interior garage. He said the project was at the end of the “preliminary phase” and that the only time frame for breaking ground on the project was as soon as possible.
Following the presentation, members of the review panel generally responded to the preliminary plans with only light criticism. The five members of the panel in attendance at the review asked the architects to take a closer look at the scale of a proposed tower on the southeast corner of the lot.
“If you’re going to do that tower you really need to do it bold and celebrate it,” panelist Richard Burns said.