Preserving Lexington Market

May 11, 2000|By Fred B. Shoken

PRESERVATIONISTS AND the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation have been duking it out over Baltimore's west side for nearly two years. Like the Jets and Sharks of Broadway acclaim, this rumble has been brewing on the west side since a plan was announced in June 1998 calling for the demolition of Baltimore's former retail district.

From the halls of the State House in Annapolis to a documentary film at the historic Senator Theatre and from the Sunspot Bulletin Board to the smoke-free back rooms of City Hall, the lines have been drawn with no compromise in sight. The west-side controversy pits local merchants against national retailers and small non-profit preservation organizations against the wealthy Weinberg Foundation.

Is it possible to both preserve historic buildings while attracting new investment? Can we find space for a local beauty school while building for big-box retailers? The answer is an emphatic "yes."

The Weinberg Foundation wants to tear down historic buildings for big-box retail stores and parking garages in the 100 and 200 blocks of W. Lexington and Fayette streets. Meanwhile, merchants plan to historicize nearby Lexington Market, taming a big, boxy 1950s building with cosmetic cornices and balconies.

My solution is to relocate Lexington Market to the historic buildings controlled by the Weinberg Foundation and allow the Weinberg Foundation to redevelop the Lexington Market and adjacent garage for big-box retailers. Historic buildings will be preserved. Space will be found for new retailers, both large national chains and small local merchants. A preserved and redeveloped west side will fill the gap between Charles Center, the University of Maryland downtown campus and Camden Yards.

Lexington Market provides market booths for green grocers, eateries, oyster bars and butcher shops, plus some non-food related merchants. It also has several meeting rooms and areas for patrons to eat.

Similar sized spaces can be found for these needs along the first level of the Stewart's Building, the former Braeger-Gutman's store, McCrory's and Kresge's. A garage can be built on the site of non-historic buildings east of Stewart's with market space on street level. Another garage could replace the Greyhound Station on Fayette Street. The former New Theatre could be converted into meeting rooms. Outdoor stalls could be set up within Lexington Mall to create a bazaar atmosphere. The upper floors of Stewart's and Braeger-Gutman's could be converted into apartments similar to the redevelopment under way in the old Hecht Co. building.

A new, old-fashioned Lexington Market within historic structures on the Weinberg Foundation development site would be in proximity to Charles Center and offices of the financial district. Merchant's displaced by this and other proposed west-side developments could be housed in nearby empty storefronts along Park Avenue and Saratoga Street.

Once this new Lexington Market is developed, allow the Weinberg Foundation to redevelop the two blocks taken up by the present Lexington Market and adjacent garages. Preservationists would care less if they tear it all down and start anew or remodel the existing buildings for big box retailers while retaining some 1,800 parking spaces already on-site. Retailers who would benefit from proximity to such major roads as MLK Boulevard, Route 40 and the Russell/Greene/Paca streets corridor.

The former Hutzler's department store could also be converted from state offices into apartments, increasing the population of the west side. Retailers could be housed on the ground floor along Howard and Lexington streets. Another big-box retailer could be built over the subway station at Eutaw and Lexington streets.

Would the Weinberg Foundation agree to this compromise and give up the Stewart's Building to house a new Lexington Market? Probably not. But did other small scale west-side merchants agree to sell their properties for new city sponsored developments? No, they were acquired through the right of eminent domain. If Hippodrome Hatters can be taken by eminent domain, why can't Weinberg Foundation properties?

The great thing about planning for the west side is that compromises aren't required. The city can acquire whatever properties are needed for redevelopment. So let's take the Weinberg properties for a new Lexington Market. If they aren't happy with it, they can make their own protest film.

Fred Shoken is a local preservation planner.

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