Following an official groundbreaking ceremony in February, exterior demolition kicked off last week at Baltimore’s Lexington Market, a quintessential Charm City institution that’s been around since 1782—a feat that makes it the oldest continuously operating public market in the United States.
The razing of the early 1980s-era arcade to make way for a “walkable, urban plaza perfect for farmers’ markets and public gathering” marked the first major visible step in the $40 million Transform Lexington redevelopment scheme headed by Seawall Development. There’s hope that the project, slated for completion in the second half of 2021, will revive the pulse of this 238-year-old mainstay on Baltimore’s downtown west side where, to quote the Baltimore Business Journal, “faded signage, dirty white subway tile walls, shuttered vendor booths, and burned-out neon” serve as evidence of a steady decline. Or, as the Baltimore Sun put it more diplomatically, Lexington Market, once heralded as the “gastronomic capital of the world” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is “showing its age.”
In addition to replacing the Arcade with a public plaza, a new 61,000-square-foot South Market building, which will be home to a mix of 50- to-60 new and existing vendors, will be built on an adjacent surface parking lot.
Built in 1952, the East Market building is now home to all current vendors, including longtime market fixtures such as the famed, family-owned jumbo lump crab cake and raccoon purveyor Faidley Seafood, an anchor business that’s been in operation since 1886 when Lexington Market was an open-air establishment. The East Market, which will be redeveloped as part of a second phase once the South Market building is complete, was to remain open to the public during construction but has since been closed due to coronavirus-related shutdowns.
Compared to the labyrinthine, brick-faced East Market building, the new South Market structure will be a spacious two-story affair with massive windows, skylights, and a metallic pitched roof that, as Baltimore Fishbowl has noted, harkens back to the sheds of yore that once housed vendors. In addition to vendor stalls, the new building will have ample room for public gatherings, events, and, of course, sitting down to scarf local delicacies like lake trout and Berger Cookies.
It’s going to be renovated but I feel like that’s also a Big Weird Thing https://t.co/LtDXcdxIpE
— Amy Plitt (@plitter) April 30, 2020
Funding for the project comes from a mix of bank loans, city and state grants, New Markets Tax Credit incentives, and the market itself.
Along with the vendor application process being delayed, the deadline for redevelopment proposals for the East Market building has been pushed back due to the pandemic. The fate of a second, largely vacant existing structure, the West Market building, also remains up in the air. Despite these uncertainties, construction work at Lexington Market, which is the flagship operation of the city-owned nonprofit Baltimore Public Markets Corp., will continue as planned during the coronavirus crisis with additional safeguards in place per the Sun. “The redevelopment construction schedule hasn’t changed at this point,” elaborated Jon Constable, a principal at Seawall Development who previously referred to the project as “the ultimate positive opportunity for Baltimore.”
Such opportunities, of course, come equipped with sunny hopes that the redevelopment will spur further investment in the surrounding area. This has raised concerns about gentrification, and if a new and shiny Lexington Market will serve as the catalyst for that.
Some, however, are skeptical that the desired investment in the area is even possible. “I’m not optimistic about this project producing a turnaround,” Stephen J.K Walters of the Maryland Public Policy Institute told the Sun, noting that concerns about public safety serve as a formidable hurdle. “If it doesn’t make sense to invest, proximity to a subsidized project doesn’t change that fundamental and unfortunate fact.”
As for the market itself, Seawall Development undertook an extensive public engagement process including town halls and listening tours in order to glean input from the community on how the new market should look and feel, and most important, what types of vendors should be greeting customers on opening day (Faidley’s is one vendor that will be enthusiastically returning). Seawall, which has said that priority will be given to new vendors accepting SNAP benefits, also stressed that Lexington Market is not at risk of emerging from construction as a trendy food hall similar to R. House, a venue in the north Baltimore neighborhood of Remington that was also developed by the company:
“Lexington Market has always been a public market that meets the needs of any and all Baltimorean, and it will remain that way even after the transformation project is complete. The Market is publicly owned and will continue to prioritize accessible food and retail options that can meet the needs of all types of customer. When selecting any new vendors for the market, implementing community programming, and designing gathering spaces within the market, every effort will be made to seek the input and advice of Market customers who will help ensure it remains a welcoming place for all.”
Whatever the impact of the new Lexington Market on surrounding real estate might be and whatever toll the coronavirus could take on vendors, that market’s status as an enduring and distinctly Baltimorean institution will—unlike the product behind the city’s famous clock tower—never fizzle away.