Chris Janian, president, Vitruvius

In its heyday, the downtown intersection of Howard and Lexington streets was a humming shopping district with four department stores – Hutzler’s, Stewart’s Hecht’s and Hochschild Kohn – and smaller shops and restaurants that attracted shoppers from across the region.

It may be hard for some to imagine that kind of activity now, given the blight that set in over subsequent decades.

But Chris Janian, president of the real estate development firm Vitruvius, sees promise. He is working with partners to revive that two-block stretch, turning it back into a place that bustles with people heading to and from stores, offices and homes. Although the area dubbed Baltimore’s SuperBlock has been the site of many planned developments over the past 16 years, the Vitruvius project, called The Compass, will be the first to get off the ground. The development will have mixed-income apartments, a future of work concept, entertainment spaces and a hotel.

“We want to revive what was once the most active commercial and shopping neighborhood in the city,” Janian told the Baltimore Sun in November 2020. But, he added, “it has to be done thoughtfully.”

Thoughtful transformation of Baltimore properties – especially downtrodden ones – into well-loved commercial enterprises and residences is nothing new for Janian. His past projects include R. House, a former auto body shop turned food hall in Remington – where he made sure there were tiny kid-friendly tables and chairs for visiting families –  and Dylan’s Oyster Cellar, a cozy bar and restaurant in Hampden. The Compass “will respect the buildings’ and neighborhood’s historic fabric, interspersing history with modern, timeless design,” according to Vitruvius’s website.

Strength, utility and beauty

Just as the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius espoused the three principles of strength, utility and beauty in all buildings, Vitruvius the real estate development firm similarly values three principles in its work: innovative real estate development, well-designed spaces and success measured by positive impact on a community. It’s this last principle that is especially important to Janian.

“I love going through the creative process when developing a new space. But the most rewarding part is that we have the opportunity to positively affect so many facets of people’s lives. ” Janian says about why community impact is important to him.

“A few of our high level goals have always been to lift up our city, support small businesses, and help equitably grow the creative and innovation ecosystems.”

Janian, the son of two artists and educators, is a native Baltimorean who has lived in many Baltimore neighborhoods. He started his real estate development career with H&S Properties Development Corp. after graduating from the University of Maryland in 2006. By the time Janian was 24, he was “both securing the financing for and managing the construction of projects worth billions of dollars,” according to a Baltimore Magazine profile of him at the time.

But real estate development isn’t the only thing on Janian’s mind. He’s a former board member of Believe in Music and the current board chair of the Maryland Art Place, grounded in building up Baltimore’s cultural communities as well as its physical communities.

“Baltimore is home,” Janian says, “and we need to realize the potential of the amazing communities and assets in and around our city.”