Loss of a block on Charles St. sounds alarm

URBAN LANDSCAPE

Downtown: The possibility that several historic buildings near Fayette Street might be demolished for a parking garage upsets city preservationists.

February 04, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

WHILE BALTIMORE preservationists are already upset about possibly losing historic buildings as part of the city's campaign to redevelop downtown's west side, the Schmoke administration is exploring plans to demolish historic buildings along Charles Street to make way for a parking garage.

Baltimore's Planning Commission approved a City Council bill last month that would authorize the city to acquire buildings "in the vicinity of" Charles and Fayette streets to make way for a $10 million, 500-car parking garage.

The bill is one of five that would pay for downtown parking garages to meet the growing demand for parking there. The legislation must be approved by the council before land acquisition or construction work begins.

The Charles Street garage also is included in the "1999 Construction Program" unveiled last week by the city Department of Public Works. Although the location of the garage has not been determined, planners say the city is studying the block bounded by Charles, Fayette, St. Paul and Lexington streets.

The block is filled with midrise buildings that date from the late 1800s and early 1900s and provide a rich counterpoint to the modern glass towers in Charles Center and the Inner Harbor area.

They include the 12-story Jefferson Building at 101 N. Charles St., whose skeleton survived the 1904 fire; the S & N Katz building at 105 N. Charles St.; the former Central Savings Bank building at 1 E. Lexington St., designed by Charles Carson; the Title Building at St. Paul and Lexington streets; and the former Hotel Junker at 20-22 E. Fayette St., a hangout for writer H. L. Mencken and others.

The city's plan to raze buildings along Charles Street to make way for a garage is drawing opposition from preservationists and others who have worked to revitalize Charles Street by promoting its historic character.

Kemp Byrnes, a board member of the Charles Street Association and leader in the effort to revitalize the corridor, said no one from the city informed his organization about the project.

"We're for new parking garages, but we're totally against anything that would hurt the historical or architectural integrity of one of the most beautiful thoroughfares we have," he said. "It's mind-boggling that they have not come to our board to explain it to us."

Byrnes said he doesn't understand why the city would demolish buildings that are largely occupied, when many vacant lots could be developed.

"It makes no business sense," he said. "It might make political sense, but we have to start making business sense or the city is going to go bankrupt."

James Dilts, co-author of a guidebook on Baltimore architecture, said the caliber of buildings makes the Jefferson block worth preserving.

"There are some really fine buildings in that block, some of the best in downtown Baltimore," he said. "There seems to be an awful lot of downtown Baltimore that is under threat all at once."

Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a member of Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group, said she is troubled not only by the idea of losing historic buildings on Charles Street but by the possibility that a garage would rise in their place, because garages tend to be unattractive.

"I don't think a parking garage belongs on Charles Street, period -- but particularly on a major corner and particularly in the heart of downtown," she said. "The planners of Charles Center showed they understood that when they put parking garages underground. They were thinking ahead back then. Parking should not be a major feature in the landscape."

City officials say a parking garage is needed near Charles and Fayette streets to accommodate office workers, students and others. They say they are optimistic that the architects, Murphy and Dittenhafer, will find a way to fit a garage on the block without destroying all of the historic buildings.

Architect Michael Murphy, part of the design team, said he could not reveal what buildings might come down because the design work is in a preliminary stage. He said his team will make every effort to find a solution that will satisfy the preservationists and those who want more parking.

The council's Budget and Appropriations Committee has not set a date for a public hearing on the Charles Street garage bill. Public Works officials have indicated they would like to have the garage designed by midyear so they can put the building out for bid by August.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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