On a sunny spring afternoon, tourists and visitors flock to the National Aquarium and other Inner Harbor attractions while upscale restaurants in nearby Harbor East prepare for the dinner crowd.

A few blocks away, in the heart of Baltimore’s downtown, it’s a different story.

The few pedestrians traversing downtown on a weekday have few places to choose from for lunch or coffee, and by 2:30 p.m., they may be out of luck, as the neighborhood all but shuts down.

Here, the sidewalks are often empty. Many of the storefronts on Howard Street, once home to thriving department stores, have been painted over with harsh graffiti, and the double-doors of stately bank towers are padlocked. Office space in austere, modernist buildings sits empty beside the large grassy gap in the ground where the Morris A. Mechanic Theater, once a symbol of downtown urban renewal, stood.

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Ricky Johnson has grown accustomed to the quiet. On his way to work downtown, he passes banners that say “Leasing Now” and “Luxury Apartments.” There must be new residents in those converted regal buildings, he thinks, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at his half-empty dining room on most nights, or at his books, which are deep in the red.

“It seems like at least in my neighborhood, something has stalled out,” said Johnson, owner of the Italian restaurant Forno since 2019 and an employee there for five years prior. “It hasn’t turned around the way I think a lot of people thought it would.”

Ricky Johnson, owner and chef at Forno Restaurant and Wine Bar, stands for a portrait inside his restaurant on Monday, March 21. Johnson is one of several property and business owners who say they have concerns about the low levels of foot traffic in the district, which they need to stay in business.
Ricky Johnson, owner and chef at Forno Restaurant and Wine Bar, stands for a portrait inside his restaurant on Monday, March 21. Johnson is one of several property and business owners who say they have concerns about the low levels of foot traffic in the district, which they need to stay in business. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Like many downtowns, Baltimore’s is still trying to bounce back from the pandemic. Remote work represents an obvious part of the equation, especially since city government employees, a large portion of the downtown workforce, haven’t returned full-time to offices. But city officials and downtown boosters also face a complex set of pre-pandemic challenges in trying to revive the area, which is roughly bounded by East Pratt Street and the Inner Harbor on the south, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west, Mount Royal Avenue on the north and the Jones Falls Expressway on the east.

Developers and businesses have been shifting their focus to waterfront land for decades. Look no further than the gleaming steel-and-glass towers in Harbor East and Harbor Point, as well as the emerging commercial and residential communities in Canton and Port Covington.

In downtown, property owners have converted office towers into luxury apartments, but investors say concerns about crime have dampened interest in downtown living. Current residents also say downtown lacks amenities such as grocery stores, public space, dog parks and restaurants. The Harborplace pavilions, once the center of tourist activity, are struggling, while the nearby Gallery mall is closed. The office vacancy rate of 23.1% is higher than the city’s overall vacancy rate of 18.9%, according to 2022 data from JLL, a commercial real estate service with offices in Baltimore.

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The fate of downtown appears to hang in the balance like never before.

Alarmed by the downturn, some downtown proprietors say they’re close to pulling out. Many complain about a lack of leadership from City Hall on how to turn things around. Yes, the CFG Arena recently opened after $250 million in renovations, Harborplace is slated for redevelopment, and Amtrak will soon provide a massive facelift to Penn Station on downtown’s northern edge. But there remains no city-issued road map for how those discrete investments can trickle out to the rest of the neighborhood and reverse decades of disinvestment.

“There are a lot of people like me who are showing up every day and trying to make an honest living being here,” said Johnson, the restaurateur. “But I just don’t know how much the city is doing the same.”

Downtown’s perception problem

On an afternoon in March, Lynda Perry stood at the window of her 30th-floor apartment at Arrive Inner Harbor, a residential community located in the former Bank of America building, imagining what the view would have looked like in downtown’s prime.

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“It would have been a wave, literally a wave of people,” Perry said as she looked down from the 1929 Art Deco-style building, with a gold and copper roof that dominated Baltimore’s skyline for four decades. In the 1980s, when she was growing up in Timonium, she and her family would regularly be part of the wave of people downtown on weekends. Developer James Rouse had recently revitalized the Inner Harbor, and urban renewal years earlier had brought sleek new office and residential towers and a futuristic-looking new arena.

”Everybody was out having a great time, the stores were full of people —” she paused, laughing. “There were stores.

“You just wanted to hang out downtown,” recalled Perry, who has since moved to Laurel for family reasons but hopes to return in a few years. “I never would have thought in a million years it would have looked like this — never ever.”

File photo of the Inner Harbor and downtown Baltimore as seen from the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel.
View of the Inner Harbor and downtown Baltimore. (Atlantide Phototrav/Getty Images)

As suburban developments sprouted around the city and investment in the city center fell off, one by one the attractions that drew Perry’s family left, closed or lost their allure. In 2001, Marriott built a new 32-story Baltimore hotel — but it was down the way in what would become known as Harbor East.

Efforts by neighborhood groups, civic leaders and developers seemed to bring new energy to downtown. Residents such as Perry flocked to the converted former office buildings, and new businesses opened in long-vacant storefronts. There were more than 7,100 downtown residents in 2020, a 61% increase over 2010, according to the city’s planning department.

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But some residential developers say there aren’t enough people like Perry to justify the expensive conversion of aging office buildings — with their rows of cubicles and floor-wide heating and cooling systems — into apartments, on top of the city’s high property tax rate.

When Paradise Management first acquired The Centerpoint, a mixed-use building across from the Hippodrome Theater, in 2013, the finances penciled out, said Bruce Panczner, Paradise Management’s owner.

Then, one day, they didn’t.

The death in April 2015 of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died from injuries sustained in police custody, prompted mass civil unrest. Violence spiked citywide. Prospective tenants would call Panczner from their cars, refusing to get out to view apartments.

He began reducing rents. At some point, he said, he may have to leave the neighborhood. “I may not have a choice,” he said, adding that he recently identified a potential buyer.

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Southern Management Companies, which converted the former Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. headquarters on West Lexington Street into 182 luxury apartments in 2008, has filled the historic 107-year-old building with everything residents could want — a complimentary gym and sauna, a private events space and extra-attentive staff.

Gabrielle Duvall, the executive vice president and general counsel for Southern Management, said it’s an effort to compensate for the troubling “externalities” outside: building vacancy, crime and violence. The firm, which has lowered its rents to attract more tenants, is weighing its continued investment in the city, she said. It owns nine apartment complexes in Baltimore with more than 2,400 units combined.

A Baltimore Banner data analysis found that crime downtown remains a serious challenge. Between 2015 and 2022, the violent crime rate downtown far outpaced the citywide rate. In 2022, the number of violent crime incidents per 1,000 people in downtown was six times higher than the citywide rate.

Mayor Scott, center, joined by Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, right, and other officials, speaks at a press conference after two teens were injured in a shooting in the 400 block of East Pratt Street.
Mayor Brandon Scott, center, joined by Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, right, and other officials, speaks at a news conference after two teens were injured in a shooting in the 400 block of East Pratt Street. (Adam Willis/The Baltimore Banner)

While the city had more than 330 homicides in 2022, the rare downtown shootings grab headlines, such as when a confrontation last summer between a driver and a group of squeegee workers turned fatal just outside a 5-year-old luxury apartment tower blocks from Camden Yards. The recent shootings of two teenagers after a fight broke out among a large crowd on East Pratt Street prompted Mayor Brandon Scott to vow to enforce a youth curfew in the summer, despite research showing that curfews rarely work.

Many visitors and residents say concerns about safety and crime in general deter them from lingering downtown, even as other city neighborhoods on the east and west sides are far more violent.

After a drop during the pandemic, rates of most crimes downtown have rebounded and remain high compared to nearby neighborhoods that make up the central part of the city, including Fells Point and the Inner Harbor, The Banner’s analysis found.

Thefts per capita in the Inner Harbor — which includes Harbor East — were slightly higher than in downtown in 2022, but violent crime is much more prevalent downtown. The number of aggravated assaults per 1,000 residents is nearly four times higher than in other nearby neighborhoods in the city’s core. Shooting and homicide rates match those in the historically most violent police districts, and downtown suffers from some of the highest rates of robbery in the city.

North of the Inner Harbor, the city recently celebrated some good news: the opening of a new 60,000-square-foot market building for Lexington Market, which dates back more than 200 years. Additional police and social workers were added to the surrounding area. But for some, concerns about crime persist.

“I don’t really hang out outside the market,” said Jimmera Melvin, 26, while enjoying lunch from Blue Island, the Malaysian food stall.

Within a month of the market’s official opening in January, Melvin had already visited four times from Owings Mills. Every time, her routine is the same: it’s straight from the parking lot to the market and back.

”The inside doesn’t match with the outside,” she added. “Crime, drugs — you never know what’s going to happen.”

‘Leadership is key’

Across the country, central business districts are changing. The strongest markets are those that have thriving business sectors as well as public services, housing options, access to transit, regular public events and green spaces, said David Downey, president and CEO of the International Downtown Association.

Baltimore, however, has yet to invest substantially in many of those pieces. Some attribute this to distracted and revolving City Hall leadership, a shrinking population and a limited operating budget. The state controls many of the transit options that serve downtown, and it did not invest significantly in capital improvements during Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s two terms in office. Hogan did, however, announce that state agencies would be moving into some of the vacant space downtown.

Despite the completion of major projects such as the Lexington Market facelift and the privately funded CFG Bank Arena renovation, doubts remain whether the city can deliver the significant, imaginative change that some say downtown needs.

In a State of Downtown presentation last year, researchers with the Urban Land Institute hammered home the need for better and more consistent direction.

“Focused leadership is necessary to successfully deliver long-term opportunities and sustain Downtown Baltimore for everyone,” researchers wrote. “Make Downtown a priority and be willing to do what it takes to get it done.”

City officials say they’ve gotten the message.

“Investing money in one thing and then sitting back and waiting for fireworks isn’t going to work,” acknowledged Justin Williams, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, who stepped into the role late last year. He said he hopes to spearhead the type of coordinated and effective plan that has so far been stymied by dysfunction at City Hall, which has had five mayors since 2007.

The city’s planning department, he added, is working on a comprehensive city plan that will include more guidance for downtown — though it could take another few years to complete.

In the meantime, increasing investment in other parts of the city has added insult to injury downtown, though city boosters say the rising neighborhoods are a win for the city’s overall economic health. In Harbor East, Harbor Point and Port Covington, massive city-issued incentives for developers have helped create new, mixed-use waterfront projects for office tenants, residents and retailers.

Large employers aren’t waiting around for things to turn around downtown. T. Rowe Price, the global investment firm, is vacating downtown for Harbor Point, where more modern office buildings can better accommodate hybrid work, said company spokeswoman Dasha Smith, adding that public safety also factored into the decision.

Some businesses, like jewelry maker Pandora, are leaving the city altogether. In November, the company issued notice of its intent to vacate its downtown Baltimore offices by 2026 for New York City, where it will receive state tax credits to support its move.

“I don’t see, frankly, the infrastructure that would have countered them leaving,” said Mark Anthony Thomas, who took over in December as president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the pro-business civic group. “There wasn’t much of a message of people being disappointed: ‘They’re leaving,’ just like, ‘They left.’ And everyone was comfortable with that.”

Thomas, a former head of Pittsburgh’s economic alliance, said he quickly noticed something missing when he moved into his office building in downtown Baltimore: ”Walkability, cool restaurants, green space, safety: You have to compete,” he said. “And in the absence of that, it will be a challenge.”

Downtown does have its draws. The average rent per square foot for downtown office space has remained virtually unchanged since 2019 — and is lower than elsewhere in the region, said Robert Manekin, managing director of JLL Baltimore.

City and state officials have dangled financial incentives, including a tax credit for apartment developers and grants for business owners looking to launch or expand a business downtown. But both business owners and residential developers say those incentives are insufficient to make up for the costs that come with the neighborhood.

And as companies reduce office footprints and make in-person work more optional, they can justify more expensive moves, Manekin said. “There’s still flight to Harbor East and Harbor Point because people are leasing substantially less space,” he said.

For some downtown business owners, the eastward migration feels like the traditional core of the city is being abandoned.

“If all the energy’s in Harbor East, all the new buildings and everything like that, there’s no way for this area to compete,” said David Cangialosi, owner of David and Dad’s Cafe, a downtown mainstay. During the lunch rush on a recent Friday, the marble-columned former bank hall was full of businessmen in suits and uniformed city workers.

The foot traffic that sustained his business when he opened at a different location nearby 25 years ago — visitors shopping in the camera and dress shops up the street, and a daily flood of office workers— has disappeared. Now, he explains the lunch rush by pointing down the street to buildings where his one-time competitors — delis, cafes and diners — have shut down. As of March, there were 55 vacant storefronts downtown, according to an analysis by The Banner.

“I’m like the last one left,” he said.

“I don’t see this being a vibrant downtown area again,” Cangialosi added. “Not without some kind of major changes.”

How is downtown Baltimore doing?
How is downtown Baltimore doing? (Yifan Luo for The Baltimore Banner)

Changing the narrative

Some remain hopeful that such changes are on the way.

“When you put it all on paper and you look at it, you think: It’s more cultural assets than anywhere I’ve been before. So we just have to change the narrative,” said Ron Legler, president of Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, a regal performing arts center on Eutaw Street that reopened in 2004 after major improvements and is now turning an adjacent historic building into event space. “It feels different; I feel like there really is something changing.”

Change is coming through the largest public investment in the downtown area in a generation: more than $150 million in state funds that will be parceled out through fiscal year 2025 in downtown and the Inner Harbor. Nearly $12 million of that will go into the Downtown Partnership’s coffers. At the northern edge of downtown, renovation of the 112-year-old, Beaux-Arts style Baltimore Penn Station also is underway, with a price tag of about $150 million.

P. David Bramble, chosen by the city to redevelop Harborplace, told a crowd at a downtown gathering last month that he senses a shift in how city officials and boosters approach the downtown equation.

“For the first time in a long time, I really see all the developers and agencies and everybody talking about making sure that these aren’t just pockmark projects with wastelands in between — that we’re really talking about how we think about connectivity between all these things,” Bramble said. “Think about an amazing corridor that allows you to eat and drink and live, all the way from President Street all the way down to the stadiums … really a state entertainment district.”

Developer David Bramble leads the project rebuilding Harbor Place in the Inner Harbor, Baltimore, Md., on November 18, 2022.
Developer P. David Bramble leads the project rebuilding Harbor Place in the Inner Harbor on Nov. 18, 2022. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Meanwhile, another $50 million in state funds will support the relocation of some 3,300 state employees to the Central Business District, a move that Hogan called a “shot in the arm” for downtown Baltimore.

The privately funded makeover of the 61-year-old CFG Bank Arena by the Oak View Group, which entered into a 30-year lease with the city, is another promising indicator, said Bill Cole, a former Baltimore city councilman and past president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp. Bruce Springsteen performed to a full house at the renovated arena on April 7, the date of the official reopening.

“If they in fact the market believed downtowns were dying, you wouldn’t see the investment we’re seeing,” said Cole, now a partner at the consulting firm Margrave Strategies.

Bruce Springsteen fans (from right to left) Jackie McCoy, Andrew Johnson, Alexis Myers, Lynn Katzen, Eugene Choi, and Steve Wells wait for hours outside the newly renovated CFG Arena for the show to begin, April 7, 2023. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

There’s also the Baltimore Orioles, whose 81 home games a year at Camden Yards may have the potential to make or break downtown’s future.

Frustrated business and property owners in downtown also feel buoyed by a new ally: Shelonda Stokes, who took over as head of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore in 2020 with a hopeful vision to grow downtown equitably and thoughtfully.

Stokes said she has what she needs to make the vision a reality: a new governor, Wes Moore, who considers Baltimore his adopted hometown; allies in the mayor’s office; an unprecedented level of public and private investment in and around the district; and a political appetite for maintaining diversity downtown, such as through the partnership’s BOOST program, which doles out money to Black business owners there. “All the stars aligned at the right time,” she said.

Still, Stokes, whose brother was killed in a shooting in Northeast Baltimore last year, acknowledged the safety challenges. She lauded the University of Maryland outreach workers fanning out around Lexington Market as one example of the balanced approach to crime and violence the city needs.

The social workers have made progress connecting people on Eutaw Street to drug treatment and job placement services, as well as providing clothing and supplies. When the social workers first began their city-funded outreach efforts about a year ago, volunteers tallied an average of 25 interactions with people selling drugs in the two-block stretch from Lexington Street to Saratoga Street. In February, the average was four, said Kyla Liggett-Creel, who runs the outreach program.

She recognizes that such progress may take longer to be felt. But not everyone feels they can wait.

“I believe in the project of turning downtown around,” said Johnson of Forno, who in recent weeks has been mired in grief over the death of one of his workers, 16-year-old Izaiah Carter, who was gunned down March 6 near his school in Southeast Baltimore. “I just hope I’m there when it happens.”

Learn more about our analysis and reproduce our findings by visiting our GitHub page.