The makeover of Lexington Market began on Tuesday as state and city officials broke ground on the project to reconstruct downtown Baltimore’s 238-year-old public market.
Updating the market will be part of building Baltimore “better and stronger for the future,” said Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who envisioned a day when tourists from across the country will flock to the city to visit the new Lexington Market.
“Lexington Market’s next chapter represents an incredible opportunity for our city, and it is essential that we support the equitable redevelopment and revitalization of this economic hub for delicious food and homegrown entrepreneurship as we continue to grow Baltimore,” he said.
Founded in 1782, Lexington Market is the longest continuously operating public market in the United States.
Historically, the market has served as a culinary and social hub for the downtown Baltimore community. But over the past 50 years, the market itself and the surrounding area experienced “significant decline and economic disinvestment which have affected the ability to respond to the needs of the city’s diverse community and residents,” said Gov. Larry Hogan.
“That ends today,” he said.
The $40 million project will be funded through a mixture of state, city, public and private funding sources, said Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the city’s quasi-public economic development agency.
Of that money, Hogan said the state has invested $9 million in the project. He added that the project will create hundreds of jobs and serve as another step toward the revitalization of Baltimore City and the betterment of Maryland.
“It will help bring visitors, return the market to its former glory, and breathe new life and economic vitality into this community,” he said.
Among the market’s infrastructure issues with the building is a sloping floor in the East Market, which poses a challenge for people who use wheelchairs and all customers trying to make eye contact with vendors in high stalls, said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
Fowler said the market’s dark ceilings, cluttered spaces, unattractive cinder block-based design, insufficient natural light, inadequate seating near vendor stalls and duplication of vendor offerings are also areas upon which the project aims to improve.
The existing East Market and its vendors will continue operation throughout construction on a new South Market, which will be built on the current parking lot. The Arcade building, which stands between the East Market and the parking lot, will be torn down and converted into an outdoor public plaza.
Upon completion in late 2021, the South Market will become home to 50 to 60 existing and new vendors, said Thibault Manekin, a partner with the project’s developer, Seawall Development.
Manekin said Lexington Market will launch a vendor application process in March to encourage new businesses to set up shop in the market and create the “largest small business incubator that Baltimore has ever seen.”
Manekin stressed that the market reconstruction is far from just another real estate project, and that the developers plan to be involved long past construction is completed.
“This is a long-term commitment on the city’s behalf to prove that real estate, done a little bit differently, can have amazing ripple effects for the city that we love,” he said.
Through partnership with Innovation Works and Baltimore Corps, Manekin said Lexington Market will also be home to a state-of-the-art technical assistance program that will help new and existing businesses every step of way, from formulating a business idea to accessing capital to opening the business and beyond.
Manekin said when the design team, led by BCT Architects, and the construction team, led by Southway Builders, began working on the market, it was important for the the project to have the input of the community.
The designers heard a desire for the building to include a nod to the history of what Lexington Market used to be, Manekin said. From that, the design and construction teams worked on a design that incorporated parts of the market’s 1910 shed building.
Among the vendors in the current Lexington Market who will remain on board for the new market is Faidley’s Seafood, a longtime tenant of the public market since 1886.
Nancy Faidley Devine, who owns and operates Faidley’s Seafood with her husband, Bill Devine, recounted her family’s ties to the market since her grandfather founded the business more than a century ago.
As a young child, Nancy remembers visiting her grandfather when his seafood business was still part of the outdoor market.
“I remember sitting on barrels of Maryland terrapin,” she said, noting the turtle was a delicacy here.
When Nancy’s parents took over the business, the market did not carry cooked food. Nancy’s father started making fish sandwiches for himself at first, then for customers, until it became a staple of their business.
“On Fridays, when St. Jude’s let out down the street, we had lines around the block to eat fish sandwiches,” she said.
Nancy began making and selling jumbo lump Maryland crab cakes in 1987, which eventually led to her earning GQ‘s Golden Dish Award in 1992 and a European trip from then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer to spread the world about Baltimore’s crabs.
“We probably could have gone a million places… but we stayed loyal, and we’re going to continue to stay loyal,” she said about why Faidley’s Seafood has remained at Lexington Market. Nancy added that she will pass the reins to her daughters and grandson whenever the time comes.
Lexington Market Executive Director Robert Thomas said the market reconstruction “signals a season of change” as the market reinvents itself and will continue to reinvent itself to serve the city of Baltimore.
“We’re glad to be part of this renaissance. We’re glad to be renewed and refreshed and rebuilt … It’s a new building, it’s a new start and it’s a fresh day.”
Part of that renaissance will be continuing to attract customers from nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore, said Tarbert.
Bruce Jarrell, interim president of the university, recalled visiting his brother and sister, both students at UMB in the 1970s. He said the high points of his visits were walking over to Lexington Market to see the hustle and bustle and to eat a crab cake.
“When I think of UMB, I think of Lexington Market,” he said. “It’s part of my life and my memory about this place.”
UMB currently has multiple buildings in the nearby, such as the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy and the Lexington Building, which houses some of the university’s administrative offices.
Going forward, Jarrell said he hopes to see UMB expand its north campus in the area with additional student and faculty programs.
“It cannot be an island. It has to involve the community,” he said of development around the market.