Keeping It Real

Does Baltimore really need to demolish so much of the West Side in order to revive it?

Cover Story

June 18, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Out in the suburbs, it seems, people are yearning for urbanity.

Shoppers mob The Avenue at White Marsh, a three-year-old retail center designed to look like an old-fashioned Main Street. Similar developments have been proposed for land near the Owings Mills Metro station and for the U.S. Air Arena site in Prince George's County.

But for the traditional shopping district in downtown Baltimore, public officials are considering a revitalization plan that would demolish much of a four-block area featuring exactly the sort of urban ambience the suburbs are scrambling to imitate.

Do the city planners know something the others don't? Or in their quest to save Baltimore's moribund retail center, are they about to destroy it?

These are the questions raised by "Howard Street USA," a $150 million, mixed-use development that would be the largest component of Baltimore's $350 million initiative to rejuvenate the west side of downtown.

The plan, proposed by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore and Grid Properties of New York, calls for a mix of renovated buildings and new structures in the area bounded by Howard, Fayette, Liberty and Clay streets.

The highlight of the plan is the proposed conversion to offices of the former Stewart's department store, an 1876 building that is one of the area's architectural gems. But in the main, the Weinberg proposal calls for a large degree of demolition. As much as 80 percent of the existing buildings in the four-block area -- more than 40 in all -- are targeted to come down to make way for new structures designed to attract "big box" retailers and other businesses that aren't downtown now.

Local preservationists have argued that most of the area's commercial buildings should be saved as part of any redevelopment plan because they possess a richness and authenticity that help distinguish downtown Baltimore from the blandness of the suburbs. To them, the Weinberg plan reflects an "urban removal" mentality prevalent in the 1960s but since discredited by most planning experts. They argue that a preservation-based development strategy, as seen in other proposals for the West Side, makes more economic sense and would result in a less sterile environment.

The preservationists -- and others who care about the West Side -- are right to be alarmed. The Weinberg plan not only would rip the heart out the retail district -- and Lexington Street in particular -- it also would fail to offer suitable replacements for all the buildings it would wipe away. While certain elements are encouraging, the complete proposal doesn't do enough to knit the West Side together or build on its strengths, including its impressive stock of historic buildings.

At a time when suburbanites are discovering the virtues of urbanism, Baltimore has a rare opportunity to reinforce the genuine urban character of its retail core.

In its current configuration, though, Howard Street USA could do the opposite.

Death by Big Box

The ambitious plan for Howard Street USA calls for an infusion of shops, offices, movie theaters, housing and garages that together could form a bridge between the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus and Charles Center.

Weinberg and Grid were selected to redevelop the four-block district after they submitted a formal bid in response to the city's request for proposals last year. Tentative plans call for 400,000 square feet of retail space, 350,000 square feet of office space, 350 apartments and two parking garages providing parking for a total of 1,000 cars.

The project would take shape along both sides of the 100 and 200 blocks of West Lexington Street, the pedestrian-only corridor that connects Charles Center with Lexington Market. The Weinberg team proposes to preserve at least seven buildings considered historically or architecturally significant. Besides the Stewart's building, they are: the American National building, the former Kresge store, Barenburg Optical, and three buildings on the east side of Howard Street between Lexington and Fayette streets -- one with a rare cast-iron front. The former Baltimore Equitable Bank building also will stay.

But for the most part, the plan calls for new buildings to take the place of existing ones. While members of the Weinberg team say they're committed to preserving key buildings, especially on corners, they contend that many of the older buildings should come down because they're small, in poor condition and can't easily be adapted for large retailers or parking. They also believe that to change the character of the neighborhood, they need to dramatically alter its appearance as well.

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