Demolition threatens Redwood St. Owner explores razing 2 buildings

URBAN LANDSCAPE

December 03, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

The owner of yet another downtown property, unable to market it in the recession, has begun to explore the idea of demolition.

First the Manekin Corp. tore down the Tower building. The Rouse Co. leveled the McCormick building. Then Constellation Real Estate started toppling the Terminal Building.

The owners of the Southern Hotel want to do the same.

The latest property owner to get the idea is Riggs National Bank of Washington. It is contemplating demolition of not one, but two, historic office buildings in the heart of Baltimore's financial district.

In jeopardy are an eight-story building at 131 E. Redwood St. and a 12-story building at 26 S. Calvert St. Constructed between 1905 and 1929, they housed the predecessor of USF&G Corp. until the 1970s and were then converted to multitenant buildings.

If they go, preservationists say, the character of Baltimore's financial district will be destroyed.

"If we lose these buildings and lose the Southern Hotel, that is going to do it for Redwood Street," said architect David Benn. "That's the most coherent street we've got. If you lose that, you lose the essence of what Baltimore is."

"Redwood Street is one of the most intact early 19th-century streets downtown," agreed Fred Shoken, president of Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group. "With both the Southern Hotel and this block gone, the whole intact character of Redwood Street would be blown away. And the city isn't getting anything out of the deal."

Both buildings at Calvert and Redwood streets were undergoing conversion to Redwood Center, a $20 million, 190,000-square-foot office complex, when the developer, an -Z affiliate of the Leapley Co. of Washington, defaulted on a $3.8 million loan from Riggs. Riggs initiated foreclosure proceedings and bought back the properties at auction for $3.8 million in 1990.

Since then, bank officials have marketed the buildings and explored plans for housing as well as offices. But so far, no buyers have emerged.

In the past year, Riggs has broached the subject of razing rather than recycling the buildings.

According to city officials, bank representatives have indicated they don't want to tear down the buildings right away. But they do want to know whether demolition is an option, because their )) chances of a sale may increase if a buyer knows he can raze the buildings and use the site for parking while the real estate market recovers.

Riggs has not formally applied for a demolition permit and none has been issued, according to housing department spokesman Bill Toohey.

Riggs is also seeking other ideas for the property and will hold a brainstorming session next week to gather ideas from various community groups. The meeting has been scheduled for Dec. 9 at noon at Pinkard's offices, 7 E. Redwood St.

Located within the Financial District Urban Renewal Area, the structure at 131 E. Redwood St. was designed for the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. by Otto Simonson, built in 1905, and expanded in 1910.

The building at 26 S. Calvert St. is an annex that was designed by Wyatt and Nolting and constructed from 1921 to 1929. Both were occupied by USF&G until the mid-1970s, when the company moved to a 40-story tower at Pratt and Light streets.

The Calvert Street building served as a temporary City Hall when City Hall was undergoing renovation and was the place where Councilman Dominic Leone was shot to death in 1976.

Any number of arguments can be made about the need to save Redwood Center. But there's really only one thing that is guaranteed to make the demolition threat vanish in this weak economy: a buyer willing to pay Riggs' asking price of $3.65 million. After seven years of renovation, Baltimore's Washington Monument officially reopens to the public tomorrow during ceremonies that run from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Festivities will include wandering carolers and "cold" fireworks designed to light the night sky without sparks that would threaten historic buildings in Mount Vernon.

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