Marie Louise Bistro in the 900 block of North Charles Street.

Charles Street usually only shuts down after monster snowstorms, or for emergency repairs, but this weekend will be an exception.

On Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., the city will close roughly 14 blocks of Charles Street to vehicles as a way of encouraging people to patronize restaurants and other businesses struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Charles Street Promenade: A Pedestrian Takeover ‘ is the name of an effort to support businesses by getting people out of their cars and into local shops and restaurants, while following guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing.

It builds on the popular Design for Distancing program launched this summer to create ‘parklets’ in parking spaces adjacent to brick-and-mortar businesses. The idea is to make Charles Street pedestrian-only for a day, so people can stroll or cycle along the historic boulevard and discover what they’ve been missing while in quarantine.

Kristin Speaker, executive director of Charles Street Development Corp., stresses that this is not a festival, where something happens in a particular place at a given time.

It’s “a chance for neighborhood businesses — restaurants, retail — to spill out into the street, for people to take walks up Charles Street and just appreciate [it] from that very calm pedestrian perspective,” she said during a recent meeting of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association. “The working title is ‘Not A Festival,’ because you’re not allowed to have a festival right now. We want to make it clear that there’s no stage, there’s no entertainment…It is really just to show off Charles Street and the businesses.”

People will be encouraged to exercise in the street, toss a football, take advantage of the fresh air, all while following public health guidelines, she explained.

“Things in small groups that are safe,” she said. “Masks will be encouraged. Obviously, social distancing. We don’t want people to congregate in any one area. The big area and the large time window is to allow people to just kind of come freely in and out, shop, eat, appreciate and then leave.”

Temporary street closings have proven to be popular in other cities, she added. “This is something that happens in a lot of cities in Central and South America, where they close down the street on a Sunday from 8 to 2 and people just bike and appreciate the boulevards and urban areas. That’s where this idea came from.”

The portion of North Charles Street that will be closed stretches from Saratoga Street to North Avenue, the 300 to 1700 blocks. It runs through downtown, Mount Vernon, Midtown-Belvedere and Station North. The street closure goes into effect at 7 a.m., and buses will be rerouted. Certain cross streets will remain open for neighborhood traffic, including Madison, Monument, Mulberry and Chase streets and Mount Royal Avenue, and the area around Penn Station will stay open. But for the most part, no cars will be allowed, while bikes, scooters and strollers will be.

Some businesses are taking advantage of the street closing with sales, give-aways and other special offers. Elite Secrets, a bridal shop, has chosen this weekend to open in a new location in the 300 block of North Charles. Brewer’s Art sous-chef Chris Carino will be grilling outdoors during a “Filipino Pop-up” starting at 1 p.m. in the 1100 block.

Baby’s On Fire, a record store café at 1010 Morton Street, is having an Adopt Artwork Day and plans to stay open longer than usual. Balloons will mark the 10 Charles Street parklets created for outdoor dining, in front of The Civil; Sotto Sopra; Dooby’s; O’Shea’s; Sugarvale; Lumbini; Marie Louise Bistro; Spirits of Mount Vernon; Brewer’s Art and Orto.

Other participants include Bella Bridesmaid; Paris West Optical; A Different Regard; Smooth Wax Bar; the Charles Theatre; Aloha Sushi; Brewer’s Art; Homeslyce; Montego Bar & Grille; Sofi’s Crepes; Tapas Teatro; The Depot; Turp’s Sports Bar & Restaurant; The Chicken or the Egg and Viccino’s Italian Gourmet.

The parklets were originally supposed to disappear once the weather gets chilly, but the city has now allowed them to stay in place at least through June of 2021. Many of the restaurants will be adding heaters to make outdoor dining more comfortable when temperatures drop.

In addition to the Charles Street Development Corp., organizers of the Promenade include the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore; Midtown Community Benefits District; Mount Vernon Belvedere Association; Central Baltimore Partnership, and Mount Vernon Place Conservancy.

The Downtown Partnership notes in a fact sheet that outside vendors will not be allowed. “The goal is to support existing businesses in a safe and socially-distanced way, not to compete with them,” it states.

If the Promenade is successful, Speaker said, she hopes to be able to do it again. In the meantime, she said, the groups are planning activities for Small Business Saturday in November and a “Holiday Stroll” in December.

Both the Design for Distancing installations and the Promenade are efforts that could benefit Baltimore even after the COVID pandemic passes, said Michele Richter, president of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association.

“I know right now with COVID we have to be very careful,” Richter said. “But once we work through all that, I think there could be some additional fun things driving our local economy…It’s a really great opportunity.”

“Both of these initiatives are things that long-term would be great for the neighborhoods, having more spots to eat outside and having a sort of non-festival,” Speaker agreed. They’re “fun to do, maybe without all these COVID restrictions too.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.