After four years of planning and development and $45 million spent, a new beginning finally is in sight for Baltimore’s Lexington Market after a process that has spanned three different mayors, a pandemic and the start of an ambitious plan to get more businesses to locate downtown.

The facility’s East Market was closing for good Saturday, and the project’s developer said it’s in the final stretch before a new, adjacent facility opens officially to the public this fall. Citing construction delays and uncertainties related to the market’s completion, city officials and Seawall Development have declined to specify an exact opening date for that new building, which is called South Market. Several “soft openings” will take place over the coming weeks, said Katie Marshall, a spokesperson for Seawall, and a timeline for opening will be made public at the end of September.

The East Market will be used as office space for now but could undergo renovation in another eight to 10 years, city and officials said.

Musician Brandon Woody entertained a crowd at Lexington Market's East Market Saturday as part of a celebration that honored the building's long history. A new, adjacent facility is scheduled to open later this fall. (Hallie Miller)

Starting Tuesday, some vendors will open on the market’s new open-air plaza — the site of the former structure known as the Arcade. City officials and Seawall have highlighted it as one of the project’s main features , which can eventually host farmers markets, outdoor parties and community events. Meanwhile, the new facility will include a mix of old and new vendors, a more accessible and brightly lit interior with a grand staircase and level floors, and other upgrades that officials said were long overdue for Baltimore’s oldest continually running public market.

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The historic market, originally called the Western Precincts Market, was founded in the late 1700s and has long been a staple of the city’s culture. It’s a key provider of fresh food as well as a one-stop shop for other services.

The site has gone through different iterations over time; the early frame market shed burned down in 1949 and was replaced with the current structure, with a grand reopening in 1952. The city “significantly expanded” the market in the 1980s, according to Baltimore Heritage, and it has been viewed as a low-cost option for immigrant communities to start businesses.

A tribute to the market’s long history will be displayed at the new facility, where attention has been paid to making the new facility feel connected to the past, officials said.

“The architect designed a building that took design cues from the past market but modernizes them with elements that are necessary for contemporary vendors and visitors,” said Paul W. Ruppert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., which oversees several public markets across the city. “The building has come to the end of its useful life. Our systems in the building are original to the building, and we’ve been nursing them along for the past decade. But it’s now time to upgrade and replace those systems, and it’s really an opportunity to start fresh with a new building.”

Ruppert said there were more than 100 stalls in the East Market and West Market buildings before the pandemic. Market officials project having as many as 48 stalls in the new building when it opens, with the capacity to accommodate as many as 1,500 people, he said.

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At a celebration at the market Saturday, Ruppert said he, too, had bittersweet feelings about the building’s closure. “It’s going to be sad to say goodbye,” he said.

The new Lexington Market building will have a grocery area that accepts payment from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Community members have cited this feature as integral to a new facility. Many of the prepared-food vendors will be able to accept SNAP as well.

The market’s revitalization is one part of a larger plan to reinvigorate downtown Baltimore as a destination for businesses, residents and visitors. City officials, viewing Lexington Market as a central piece of that plan as well as a marker of Baltimore’s proud past, have invested heavily in the development’s success, including directing about $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid to help cover vendors’ stalls.

“Without the funds, these costs would have otherwise been passed on to vendors in the form of increased rents,” Monica M. Lewis, a spokeswoman for Mayor Brandon Scott, said in an email.

Previously scheduled to open in 2021 but delayed due to the pandemic, the market has for many years been eyed for redevelopment. Concerns about accessibility, sanitation and the safety of the surrounding area have loomed over vendors and visitors, causing declines in both, officials have said. Seawall won the bid for redeveloping the market in 2018.

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Past revitalization efforts were met with financing challenges and debate over whether to keep the current structure intact or create a new one. The current project’s financing includes bank loans, tax credits for new markets, state and city grants and funds from Lexington Market.

While officials say the project will be embraced and is more representative of the city’s culinary scene, concerns linger about the displacement of some Lexington Market vendors who will not be opening in the new facility. The broader concerns about public safety downtown remain.

Marshall, from Seawall, said the development team spent 18 months discussing plans with community members and feels the mix of vendors has strengthened. She said about 50% of the vendors are Black-owned businesses and another 50% are women-owned, an improvement in diversity from the market’s numbers before their involvement.

“That was a huge call the market heeded over the years,” she said. “It had slipped to not really represent the city.” About 17 of the 36 vendors from the East Market will join the South Market, she added.

Meanwhile, late last year, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore launched its “Double Down on Downtown” campaign, acknowledging that too many companies were vacating their offices there in favor of other parts of the city or neighboring counties. Lexington Market’s completion is central to that campaign, as is the redevelopment of the nearby Royal Farms Arena, built in 1961; the so-called “Superblock,” a former five-and-dime shopping district; and the addition of hundreds of state employees who will eventually be relocated from the aging State Center complex to downtown. Officials hope these projects will draw more people to the city center and increase daily foot traffic there.

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Alex Kofman, owner and operator of the shoe repair shop Kofman’s, said he looked forward to growing his customer base with old and new visitors to the market.

“It felt dead, after a while,” said Kofman, whose father and grandfather also ran the business there. “I’m looking forward to dealing with a broader range of people. It’s absolutely beautiful inside; I’m hoping what is happening inside is reflected outside, in the surrounding area, too.”

Nancy Faidley Devine, whose jumbo lump crab cake at Faidley Seafood gained acclaim in the 1980s, said she, too, has high hopes for the shop’s next home. “It won’t be the same, and there have been a lot of changes over the years,” she said at Saturday’s event. “But let’s hope this change will be the best.”

Ruppert said the market is poised to serve as the anchor of the newly envisioned downtown. The facility, in addition to the outdoor plaza, has space for public gatherings and will showcase a diverse set of small businesses, he said, including fresh-food vendors as well as prepared-food options.

“We see Lexington Market as the center point,” he said. “There’s lots of opportunity down there and some development over the last few years, but we are hopeful enough and optimistic that this is one piece of bringing downtown back to being a more vibrant neighborhood like it was in the past.”

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Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership, said the revitalized market has already sparked other development projects and more interest in the area. The market’s strategic placement — linking the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the Central Business District and the Inner Harbor — helps the downtown area feel more connected, she said.

She also emphasized safety as a component of the Downtown campaign, citing its centrality to the overall plan for the market: “With every move we make we’re looking to enhance existing and establish new, safe spaces for all of Baltimore to gather, through walkable streets, connected neighborhoods and retail and restaurants that are representative of our city.”

City officials, law enforcement, social workers and health care entities have formed a coalition focused on a holistic neighborhood approach as a complement to the market’s overhaul. In addition to community beautification work that includes increased trash pickup, enhanced lighting and pop-up health clinics and resource centers to be installed around the market’s borders, the coalition has discussed increasing the borders of the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s police boundaries and having a greater law enforcement presence in the area, according to an outline of the coalition’s plans.

Lexington Market officials have had to wrestle with concerns that new market’s offering might be too pricey for longstanding patrons. Ruppert acknowledged the difficulty in curating a market with both fresh and prepared foods.

“It’s been a challenge to identify merchants to come into the space to keep availability of fresh food,” he said. “Prepared foods ... is the direction more markets have been going in.”

And while vendors have been offered “allowances” to help design and build their stalls, they have been asked to pay a $10,000 fee to cover the increased costs of labor and construction over the pandemic. Lewis, of the mayor’s office, said the market’s federal COVID-19 aid doubled the allowances and kept the construction fee down.

But some Lexington Market merchants said they weren’t expecting to take on those costs when they first entered into discussions with the market to open stalls.

“It’s been a bit unsettling, but we’ve been able to get through that,” said Travis Bell, the co-owner and founder of Black Acres Roastery, an artisan coffee maker. “That’s not exactly easy; it’s a lot of money for a small business.”

Currently operating from R. House, a private market in the Remington neighborhood, Bell said he was eager to join the new ecosystem of small business owners in the historic market and grow his business. “It presents a good opportunity for folks who may not have had an opportunity before to have a retail space down there,” he said.

Matt Williams, co-owner and chief marketing officer at Mount Royal Soaps in Remington, will also be joining the new vendor community. He said the low rents and potential uses of the outdoor plaza sold him on expanding there.

He acknowledged “mixed feelings” about the new facility among community members as well as some confusion among vendors about the new construction fee. Still, he said, he sees opportunity in the next chapter.

“The offer they gave us was a good one, whereas if you try to open new store or restaurant, you would need a bank loan,” Williams said. “With opening any new place, there’s a ton of risk, but we felt we really couldn’t say no, and I think we have a lot of faith in the development going on in the area.”

Adam Willis contributed to this report.

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