Owners of the Southern Hotel are seeking permission to tear down the city landmark and replace it with a park until they are ready to move ahead with construction of a $180 million office tower.
Baltimore's Architectural Review Board was scheduled to see plans this week for a "people's park" that would be constructed in place of the vacant 14-story hotel at Light and Redwood streets.
The presentation was postponed at the last minute but most likely will be held next month.
The owners contend that the building has deteriorated to the point where it threatens public safety.
"It's a hazard. It's an accident waiting to happen," said Dirk Mosis, head of Mosis & Associates, a group that is working with One Light Street Joint Venture, the group planning the One Light Street office tower.
The move to raze the Southern Hotel, which was added to Baltimore's landmark list in 1986, marks a change of stance on the part of the hotel owners and has already drawn opposition from local preservationists. The owners received permission to tear down the hotel in 1989 but indicated then that they would wait until they were able to build the replacement.
The owners say the recession has kept them from proceeding with construction of the 45-story office building. But they would like to move ahead with the site clearance since they have already received approval from Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).
"When we were talking to CHAP in 1989, we thought the [new] building would be under way a lot sooner," Mr. Mosis said. But the longer the old building remains standing, the more it deteriorates and poses a safety threat, he said.
"The main reason for our proposal is the lack of stability, the decrepitness, the wear on the building," he said. "We cannot keep people out of the building, no matter what we do to board it up. There's evidence of drug use inside. It's an insurance and liability problem, and to make it a . . . safe situation would cost in excess of $1 million. It would be a major undertaking."
Mr. Mosis said the owners believe it makes no sense to invest that much when they plan to tear down the building.
He said they are proposing to create and maintain a fenced park that could "bring some activity to this part of town" during the day and be closed at night. He said it would have a performance area and a space for vendors as well as landscaping that would make it a softer-edged version of Hopkins Plaza.
"The idea is to make something that is useful during the interim period," said Amir Hammour, executive vice president of Capital Guidance Corp. of Houston, an investment management company that heads the development team.
Built in 1917 at 7-11 Light St., the hotel was once one of the most popular in Baltimore, known for its rooftop gardens and ballroom. It has been vacant since the mid-1980s, when it was partially gutted by a developer who planned to restore it as a luxury hotel. The project was abandoned when financing fell through.
One Light Street Joint Venture bought the hotel as part of a large parcel it was assembling to construct the 45-story office tower.
Area preservationists say razing the hotel and not building the tower would devastate Redwood Street, one of the most attractive thoroughfares in Baltimore's financial district.
"I don't think the city needs another park," said Donna Shapiro, an officer of Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group. "I think the park where the Tower Building used to be is a disaster. The city doesn't need another hole on Light Street, right across from Maryland National Bank."
"Redwood Street is one of the special places that make Baltimore Baltimore," said architect David Benn. "We don't need an open park. We need the coherence of the streetscape. I can't think of anything that would be more harmful to Redwood Street than if they blew this building away."
In December 1989, Baltimore's preservation commission gave the developers a "notice to proceed" with demolition of the hotel, "due to economic hardship and conditions of public detriment." The vote came after the owners testified that the partially gutted building was not economically feasible to recycle either alone or as part of a new structure.
But the commissioners recommended that housing commissioner Robert Hearn not actually issue the demolition permit until the owners provided proof that they have a lead tenant for the tower and financing to build it. According to housing department spokesman Bill Toohey, a demolition permit still has not been issued.
CHAP's action came after several other developers sought and won permission to raze vacant buildings downtown, including the Tower Building at Baltimore and South streets and the McCormick building at 414 Light St.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said at the time that he favored the idea of keeping the Southern Hotel standing until the developers are ready to begin work on the replacement building.