Baltimore’s Lexington Market has been around since before George Washington took office as the first President. And it remains one of the oldest continuously operating public markets in the world.
But it has fallen on hard times and the city is about to launch a $40 million redevelopment project that would make Lexington Street a pedestrian mall and put a new market building on what is now a parking lot.
Granted, there are times—like the day before the Preakness—that Lexington Market seems to be thriving. For folks like Ron Netco and his wife, Barbara, its part of an annual pilgrimage they’ve made, along with 33 friends and relatives, for the past 41 years to see the big race.
The trip to Lexington Market must include a stop for a crab cake at Faidley’s, says Barbara, who stopped mid-bite to talk.
“Oh they’re the most wonderful crab cakes ever,” she said. “There’s no filler in them. It’s just plain old crab cakes. Love, love, love them.”
But the market is “not like it used to be,” says Milos “Mike” Houvardis, owner of Berger’s Bakery.
“I remember 40 years ago, 45 years ago, the family come to the market and shop for the family, come with shopping bags,” he recalled. “Because they have everything, they have the bakery, they have the meat places, the food stamps. It was like a supermarket before.”
But the problems with the market are more than changing shop patterns. The current buildings date to the 1950s.
Vendors have complained of plumbing problems. The market was shut down for two days last July after Facebook videos surfaced of a rat crawling through a display case at the Buttercup Bakery, adjacent to Berger’s. Buttercup and Berger’s have been closed because of insect infestations over the last year. And potential customers have been scared off by reports of drug dealing.
Colin Tarbert, Chairman of the Board of Baltimore Public Markets, says the market suffers from basic structural problems and deferred maintenance.
“It’s not the sexy stuff but the mechanical systems, the grease traps,” he said. “Those are the things that make these markets work. And frankly they haven’t been repaired or upgraded in decades.”
To fix all that, the city selected Seawall, the developer that did Union Mill in North Baltimore and R House in Remington.
Jon Constable, Seawall’s project leader, says the developers looked at a number of options and decided the best one “would be to tear down the existing arcade that was built in the ‘80s and reopen Lexington Street.”
“It will be a public plaza and open to pedestrian traffic,” he said. “And will also create an incredible event space for outdoor markets, concerts, anything you can really think of.”
The vendors will be able to stay open during the reconstruction, which pleases many of them. And Houvardis, who says things have been slow lately, is cautiously optimistic.
“I think the new building is going to be more attractive to the customers, or maybe they come new ones, and stay the old ones.”
But to be successful, Constable says, the redone market will need a different mix of vendors who sell “more fresh foods, a larger variety of healthy choices.”
Tarbert, of the city’s market board, says the renovations at Lexington Market, one of six public markets in the city, is a key piece in a larger puzzle.
“Basically, we have Northeast and Broadway markets on the east side,” he explained. “We have the Avenue Market and Hollins Market on the west side and then finally our flagship market is Lexington.”
The redevelopment of Hollins Market is just getting started and the first two vendors at the renovated Cross Street market in Federal Hill are set to open this week.
Constable says Seawall is launching a “community engagement” program that includes quarterly town hall meetings over the next two years to discuss plans and progress in hopes of getting “Baltimore City to fall in love with Lexington Market again.”
The first meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 26 at the market.