City hopes to buy temple for parking

Site may be condemned to build 600-space lot

April 14, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's drive for more downtown parking is again targeting the 129-year-old Masonic Temple for condemnation, rousing historic preservationists who want to save the landmark.

City officials confirmed yesterday that they are considering buying the seven-story building at 223-225 N. Charles St. and tearing down all or some of it to create a 600-space parking lot. The city would also condemn the building at 217 N. Charles St. that houses the Downtown Partnership, a business coalition that has been calling for new downtown parking lots.

In November, the city approved spending $47 million to build four municipal parking garages with 1,600 spaces that officials view as critical to retain and attract downtown businesses. In a striking and symbolic setback to the city's economic development efforts, the state's largest law firm, Piper and Marbury, announced in September that it was leaving its longtime offices downtown to establish a headquarters in Mount Washington.

With redevelopment plans for Charles Center and downtown's west side in full swing, the city had hoped to build a parking lot at Charles and Fayette streets. That proposal fell through after the city realized that condemnation and relocation costs for properties in the area could reach $8 million.

By taking the Masonic Temple through eminent domain, the city would have to negotiate with three property owners, city officials said yesterday. The temple was sold in August for $500,000 to William C. Smith Co., which planned to fully restore the building. The city also would have to negotiate with the owners of the Downtown Partnership building and an adjacent parking lot.

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos offered to buy the Masonic Temple property last year but the deal fell through after disagreements over acquiring the adjacent parking lot behind the building.

The attempt to build the parking lot on the temple site is meeting objections from historic preservationists who fought to save the building from a similar fate last year.

"I'm appalled that anyone would even think of touching the building," said John Maclay, a local preservationist who has written a book on Baltimore architecture. "Even a partial demolition would destroy its fabulous rooms."

City Planning Director Charles Graves III said the plan would save as much of the building facade as possible. The city would demolish only the rear portion of the building, Graves said.

Maclay said any alteration to the rear of the building could affect the ornate meeting rooms that contain everything from marble to coffered ceilings.

"I thought we had this landmark saved," Maclay said.

A 1997 study by the Downtown Partnership determined that downtown Baltimore needed 3,615 additional parking spaces. The city has about 24,000 spaces in the downtown area, according to city officials.

The 1,600 spaces approved in November would become available over the next five years. They are key to the city's hopes of retaining several downtown businesses, which have leases expiring next year and in 2001, that have complained about inadequate parking downtown.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is looking for help from the private sector to complete the remaining parking lots. City Hall's plans to ease the downtown parking crunch would cost $69 million.

The Downtown Partnership employs about 100 workers who would be forced to move under the proposal. The irony that the partnership pushed for the parking lots and has supported similar condemnation of west-side businesses targeted for redevelopment was not lost yesterday on partnership President Laurie B. Schwartz.

Schwartz would not say whether the Downtown Partnership is opposed to its building being torn down for a parking lot. "The city recognizes a severe parking shortage that exists downtown," Schwartz said. "We're looking forward to seeing the precise site [recommended]."

All sides are expected to meet at noon today at Johns Hopkins' Downtown Center, Charles and Saratoga streets, to discuss the proposal.

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