Baltimore, merchants seek relief for a beleaguered Lexington Market

The pill peddlers were busy on Eutaw Street. Up and down the sidewalk they shuffled, hawking a variety of goods — methadone, the anxiety drug Xanax and other prescription medications — in a street code repeated over and over.

"Bukes and bars, bukes and bars," one man said rhythmically, slang for the buprenorphine strips used to treat heroin addiction and bar-shaped Xanax tablets.

Steps away, a huge sign heralded the entrance to another busy world of buying and selling: "World Famous Lexington Market," a fixture on downtown Baltimore's west side since 1782.

As a treatment outreach worker, Edward Canty has had a daily view of this illegal sidewalk commerce — a gauntlet through which shoppers must pass while dodging those already in a hazy high. He pities the older women heading into the market for meat and produce, as his grandmother once did, and the lunch crowds streaming in for a hot dog, crab cake or Chinese food from one of more than 100 stalls.

"You've got to skim through all of this madness," he said, surveying the scene through dark sunglasses on a recent Friday afternoon.

City Hall is laying the groundwork for a major overhaul of the city-owned market that could cost up to $25 million. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and market managers believe a redesigned building and better vendor mix — less fast food and more fresh, gourmet and ethnic fare — could lure back those middle-income shoppers who abandoned it long ago.

But officials acknowledge that managing what happens outside is vital to achieving success inside.

Police say a beefed-up presence that began two years ago has made a dent in problems such as prescription drug dealing, a view reflected in arrest statistics. Significant problems remain, though, with a recent police report describing Lexington Market as "a well known open-air drug market." Since summer, market management has barred more than 50 people for drug-related offenses.

Drawing more-affluent customers is one way to drive off such "negative behavior," said Ted Spitzer, whose consulting company Market Ventures Inc., which specializes in public markets, was hired last year for $436,000 to develop a master plan. That won't happen "unless the fundamental product offering and physical space is improved," he said.

"The market is long overdue for that kind of major improvement," said Spitzer, president of the Portland, Maine-based firm.

Some merchants express deep concern. Konstant's Foods owner Larry Brenner, whose four stalls sell candies, barbecue, fresh-roasted peanuts and $1.95 hot dogs, agrees that change is badly needed. His sales are down more than 20 percent from two years ago, he says, adding that he believes some people are "scared to come here."

But Brenner worries that overhauling the market could seriously disrupt business for an extended time and argues for more modest improvements. With the master plan not due for several months, he notes that a remade market is probably a couple of years away.

"In the meantime," he said, "we're all dying here."

Hopes for revival

For a long time, Lexington Market hummed. During much of the 20th century, it sat in the heart of the city's bustling shopping district, a block west of the junction of Howard and Lexington streets, home to four major department stores.

With the rise of the suburbs and the emergence of modern supermarkets after World War II, the Howard Street shopping district had declined markedly by the late 1970s, and it wasn't long before many regular customers stopped going to Lexington Market.

"A lot of people who used to come all the time, [now] we see them only at holidays," said Mike Houvardas, longtime owner with his wife, Fotini, of the Bergers bakery stall, which sells the familiar chocolate-covered cookies and where doughnuts are two for $1.

By 2004, the last time the market's management conducted a demographic survey, a "significant" share of customers reported household incomes below $25,000, said Casper Genco, who plans to retire this summer after 12 years as executive director.

For more than a decade, city officials have pinned hopes for reviving the market partly on breathing new life into nearby vacant buildings, such as the former Hecht Co. department store, now the Atrium apartments. Officials expected those new residents to reinvigorate the market, a trend bolstered by the steady growth of the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore's medical and academic campus.

It hasn't gone according to plan. Key parts of the west-side redevelopment project have stalled, notably the "Superblock," a $152 million proposal for 300 apartments, retail space and a parking garage that has been mired in litigation. And many hoped-for shoppers have avoided the market, whether because of discomfort with the setting, dissatisfaction with the offerings or both.