The 230-year-old, city-owned Lexington Market is preparing for a massive renovation that could cost about $25 million.

By Jenny Hottle, Daily Record Business Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2014
Originally published on thedailyrecord.com

In the 45 years she has worked at Faidley’s Seafood, Damye Hahn witnessed the slow transformation of Lexington Market’s role in downtown Baltimore.

As a child, she watched customers line up for fresh roasted peanuts at Konstant’s Foods and pick out rockfish from her parent’s store. But then supermarket chains made their way into the city, becoming the primary source of grocery items. Market vendors adapted, and many began serving cooked foods at their stands to fill the void.

“It’s easy for people to go to the grocery store and get their toilet paper at the same place they get everything else,” Hahn said. “It’s kind of changed the way people shop.”

Hahn and other market stakeholders hope to return to the old market style, where merchants specialize in a diverse array of fresh menu offerings. The 230-year-old, city-owned Lexington Market is preparing for a massive renovation that could cost about $25 million. City and market officials are collaborating with patrons and vendors to determine how they can reinvigorate interest in the historic market through preservation and modernization.

In March, Maine-based consulting firm Market Ventures led a survey of the market, asking patrons and vendors about their perceptions of the market and desires for its future. The firm will present a summary of the findings by July 31, and the market’s steering committee and board of trustees will develop a plan of action for design and merchandising in the fall, said Robert Thomas, assistant general manager at Lexington Market Inc.

Based on initial findings, Thomas said, people wanted a larger menu of items — including more artisanal and ethnic foods — to attract a broader customer base.

“It’s wonderful that the market has fresh food, lower cost products, and it’s essential that we maintain that,” Thomas said. “But we’re not representing a full spectrum of customers.”

Hahn envisions a new layout, where the market is divided into sections based on product offerings.

Market Ventures also recognized a need to make physical changes to the market’s layout to bring the building up to regulation, said Ted Spizter, the firm’s president. And the perception of safety, market and city officials said, must improve.

Two and a half years ago, police and security officers from the city, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Lexington Market collaborated to tackle crime — and statistics show that crime has dropped since then, Perman said.

But there remains the challenge of convincing students, faculty and staff to check out the market, said Jay Perman, UMB president.

“It’s a conscious effort to deal with the kind of environment that has made people uncomfortable,” Perman said.

Hahn said she hears concerns about pill peddlers and drug users outside the market, but she has never seen them. But she’s had to deal with unauthorized individuals trying to sell items in her store.

On Monday, a man walked through Faidley’s, attempting to sell socks to restaurant patrons. Hahn and a coworker asked him twice to leave before he walked out the door.

“During the week in the afternoons, it’s common,” she said as the sock-seller wandered outside. “Here in the city, you cannot stop people from walking in and out. We have guards, and they push them along, but unless they’re doing something illegal, you can’t arrest them.”

Inside the market, several patrons said they want vendors to add healthier items to the menu.

“There’s not a lot of fresh fruit stands,” said Dan Taylor, a Nebraska government worker in town for business. He said he walked around the market trying to find lunch before settling on a dish from “one of 20 fried chicken places.”

Lexington Market has undergone previous renovations and reinventions. For vendors and local patrons, preserving the market’s past is essential in any new modernization plan

“We have to look at the history of Lexington Market, its importance to the city, and we have to be looking long-term, too,” Spitzer said. “We want to do what’s best in the long run, even if there’s short-term unpleasantness.”

Alvin Barksdale has been coming to the market with his mother since he was a child. Over a late breakfast Wednesday afternoon with his family, he recalled the smell of fresh meats and the sight of cultures mixing together.

“I come here for the history. It’s connected to our culture,” said Barksdale, of East Baltimore.

One Monday, two airline pilots in town for business stood at a counter in Faidley’s Seafood, eating platters of macaroni and cheese, coleslaw and — of course, they said — crab cakes.

“It’s one of the best crab cakes in the world,” said Bill Neal, of Memphis, Tenn.

Neal said he read reviews of the crab cakes on Yelp a few years ago and decided to stop by. He travels to markets all over the world to sample food from vendors, and he makes a point of stopping at Faidley’s every time he’s in Baltimore.

“It’s kind of what we search for when we fly out overseas because we try a little bit of this and that, a different culture,” Neal said. “This is definitely Baltimore culture right here.”

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