Baltimore awakens to a municipal renaissance

Baltimore, the nation's third largest port and eighth most populated city, has had its detractors. A manufacturing giant with a history of urban blight, the city has been thought of by many executives as simply a blue-collar whistlestop between New York and Washington and not a place that top corporations call home.

Now, however, city officials and urban developers are working toward a renaissance they hope will make Baltimore an up-and- coming city of the 1980s.

The physical transformation of the city is evident in a number of major projects:

* Charles Center, the $175 million central business core, is a 33-acre complex with 1.75 million square feet of office space, 400 apartments, shops, restaurants, underground parking for 4,000 vehicles, and a five-tower Hilton Hotel expanding to 700 rooms by mid- 1981 with a $3 million renovation. An additional 1.5 million square feet of office space adjacent to the project also was spurred by the Charles Center Project.

* Inner Harbor, a 240-acre project, adjoins Charles Center to the southeast and hugs the waterfront. The project includes the 30- story World Trade Center with observation floor, a new federal courthouse, the Maryland Academy of Science Exhibition Center and Museum, with planetarium, and several new major office buildings.

* Inner Harbor also contains Harborplace, a project of James W. Rouse that contains numerous specialty shops and restaurants similar to Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Quincy Market.

By early 1981 Inner Harbor will include a $15 million aquarium designed by Peter Chermayeff, architect of the New England Aquarium.

* The new 18-story Equitable Bank Center houses Hutzler Brothers department store, the business district's first in two generations.

* Opposite the $45 million convention center built two years ago is the 500 -room Hyatt- Regency hotel scheduled to open in June. Setting the tone of the hotel is a nine-storey atrium with fountains, greenery, sidewalk cafes, and a glass elevator ascending to a restaurant atop the pyramid.

These projects have a tangible effect on Balimore's tax ledgers. Ten years ago, Inner Harbor was an embarrassing cluster of decayed warehouses and factories. Property taxes for this area totaled about $1 million. In 1979, $78 million in investments were added to the tax rolls and now $335 million in construction is under way or committed. It is estimated that property taxes for Inner Harbor property will shortly reach over $10 million. Charles Center taxes , which were $777,000 before development, have risen to over $5 million.

Baltimore's progress is attributed by many residents to its three-term mayor, William Donald Schaefer, who backed a total rebuilding for the city's downtown. For Baltimore, an independent city not part of any county, this support was essential.

To facilitate private investment, the Baltimore Economic Development Corporation, operating since 1976, was created to encourage and coordinate economic development. BEDCO acts as a one-stop clearing house for business site selection, financing, and facility planning.

Baltimore's upward economic advance has been dramatic. Yet, even Walter Sondheim, of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, knows the city has much to do.

"There are still large parts of the business district pockmarked with vacancies or underutilized. Baltimore's downtown retail center is particularly depressed," Mr. Sondheim says. He hopes the completion of a subway system in 1982 will act as an aid to the department store area as well as a solution to several other related problems.

Baltimore's transfiguration seems to have stimulated a rejuvenation of civic pride as well.

During the final evening of the annual Baltimore City Fair, the city's symphony orchestra played Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The guns roared from Federal Hill, the fireworks brightened the sky, and the Pride of Baltimore clipper schooner glided across the Inner Harbor.

"Bawlamer," said a woman in the audience, using the city's prevalent vernacular, "you're gettin' to be too much. You ain't s'posed to be this good."

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