How a nice building can be saved

URBAN LANDSCAPE

July 29, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

So long, Southern Hotel. Hello, Redwood Center.

Now that city officials have decided to allow the landmark hotel at Redwood and Light streets to be razed for a temporary park, Baltimore's next great preservation debate is likely to focus on the vacant, two-building complex known as Redwood Center.

The buildings at 131 E. Redwood St. and 26 S. Calvert St. have been on the market for nearly three years, and their owner has run out of patience. R. C. Holdings of Washington, an affiliate of the Riggs National Bank, inherited them when the bank foreclosed on the previous developer, who defaulted on a $3.8 million loan. Both buildings have been partially gutted and would require a sizable infusion of cash to be made usable again. On June 8, an attorney for the bank applied for a demolition permit, initiating a city review process that could take months to complete.

Local preservationists are crying foul. They say that with the loss of the Southern Hotel, demolition of two more buildings nearby would make Baltimore's fragile financial district look like a bombed-out war zone.

But there may be a way for the city to satisfy both the bank and the preservation interests. What makes this demolition scenario different from most others is that it involves two buildings, not one. And they're separated by a city-owned alley, Mercer Street.

Furthermore, as works of architecture, the two buildings are unequal. Both were constructed by the predecessor of USF&G Corp. But the eight-story Redwood Street building, designed by Otto Simonson and dating from 1905, is far more architecturally significant and worthy of preservation than the 12-story Calvert Street annex, designed by Wyatt & Nolting and built from 1921 to 1929.

It's not just that the older building is richer in detail and better proportioned than its neighbor.

It also has larger floors that lend themselves to a variety of possible uses, while the Calvert Street building is unusually narrow and inefficient in its layout.

In addition, the older building happens to occupy a more visible corner site.

A possible key to crafting a compromise lies in considering the two buildings as distinct entities, not as a whole.

As a starting point for discussion, city officials could offer to allow Riggs to demolish the skinnier building at 26 S. Calvert.

They could then say that the 40-foot-wide Calvert Street property could be combined with the 32-foot-wide bed of Mercer Street to create a parking lot -- on one condition.

To acquire the street, officials could say, the bank would have to swap the building at Calvert and Redwood streets for it.

Or they could ask the bank to pay the same amount for Mercer Street that it is seeking for the Redwood Street property, so the exchange is a wash.

With such a swap, the bank would finally get both buildings off its books.

One would be razed for the parking lot, which could be marketed for resale. It would measure 72 feet by 155 feet and contain anywhere from 32 to 54 parking spaces.

The second would become public property.

City redevelopment officials, on the other hand, would gain control of a potentially valuable asset with little upfront expense.

They could dangle the Redwood Street building as a carrot when luring companies to town.

They could put it out for bids.

Or they could make it a municipal building, used for anything from offices to a much-needed day care center.

In any event, they would be in a better position to protect this critical corner of Redwood Street, in much the same way that they saved the Brokerage office complex by taking control of it from the Bank of America earlier this year.

Razing a building is hardly the ideal solution, from the preservationists' point of view. Baltimore's business district has lost too many historic buildings already, they might say.

But the point is, because the city controls Mercer Street, redevelopment officials have a rare opportunity to bargain with the property owner so both sides come out ahead.

With a little creative negotiating, they just may be able to avert another demolition disaster on Redwood Street.

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