`Stewart's stretch' stirs debate

URBAN LANDSCAPE

District: A foundation's revitalization plan that would preserve the former Stewart's department store but raze a dozen buildings next to it has alarmed preservationists.

February 11, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

TWO DECADES AFTER the Stewart's retail chain closed its flagship department store at Howard and Lexington streets, the building is at the center of a fierce debate over the best way to revive Baltimore's once-bustling shopping district.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the building's owner, has formulated plans to redevelop the Stewart's block and the one east of it to create a mixture of offices, residences, shops and parking space -- a $71 million investment.

As part of its plan, the foundation would preserve the 1899 Stewart's building and the former American National Bank building at Lexington and Liberty streets. But the foundation wants to tear down more than a dozen other structures between them to make way for other elements, including 164 residences and a 550-car garage.

That strategy has alarmed preservationists, who contend that the city should try to save more buildings in the Stewart's block and throughout the Market Center renewal area as part of any revitalization plan for the West Side of downtown.

"This still sounds too much like an old-fashioned, 1960s-style urban removal plan," said preservationist John Maclay during a hearing on the west-side plan last week before Baltimore's Planning Commission. "It could replace the vibrancy of the retail district with the sterility of a Charles Center. Real Baltimore landmarks and streetscapes could be scraped away."

The historic buildings and streetscapes of the west side are "a world-class collection of assets which warrant preservation as a public purpose goal," said Bill Pencek, president of Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group. A preservation-based process is "far more likely to result in what we all want -- a diverse, vital, desirable, populated district with a good mix of small, interesting, locally owned businesses as well as national retailers."

The plan for the "Stewart's stretch" is the first phase of a $100 million redevelopment proposal that the Weinberg Foundation, working with the construction firm of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and the architectural firm Design Collective, has formally submitted for an area bounded by Howard, Liberty, Fayette and Clay streets.

In response, the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is seeking passage of City Council legislation that would give the city authority to acquire about 70 buildings within an 8.5-acre area so they can be brought together for redevelopment. (The city is moving to acquire the properties to make tenants eligible for relocation benefits if they have to move.)

Baltimore Development Corp. has set April 19 as the deadline for groups to submit competing proposals for all or part of the same area. Once the bids are in, the mayor will determine whether to award the buildings to Weinberg or another team, assuming the council passes the land acquisition bill.

On Tuesday, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation approved a request to add the Stewart's building to the National Register of Historic Places. The designation means that any developer who restores the building with private funds would be eligible for tax credits for historic preservation.

Al Barry, a private planning consultant speaking for Preservation Maryland and Baltimore Heritage at the Planning Commission meeting, observed that the chief difference between the city's plan for the west side and the preservationists' vision is the degree to which preservation is part of the equation.

He noted that while the city is willing to protect individual buildings that it deems historically significant, it would permit demolition of other structures to make way for new construction. The result of such an approach, Barry said, could be a fragmented district where "isolated monuments" are saved but the historic context is lost.

Far more preferable, he said, would be an approach that keeps large landmarks such as the Stewart's building and the smaller buildings that contribute to the unbroken rows of buildings.

Planners say the city will consider proposals that call for rehabilitation of existing structures as well as new construction, and that the area's character will be determined largely by what proposals the city receives by April 19.

They say that because the city wants to acquire a building doesn't mean it will be razed. But they also note that developers sometimes need to acquire several buildings to create a "footprint" large enough to build a garage or other structure capable of attracting certain tenants.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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