In a major shift for Baltimore's $350 million project to rebuild the west side of downtown, city officials are negotiating an agreement that would require the preservation of more than half the buildings in a 26-block area largely targeted for condemnation.
Potentially ending a two-year battle with preservationists over demolition in the retail district around Lexington Market, Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday he supports a proposed agreement with the state that would save 262 of the more than 500 buildings in the area.
What some describe as a victory for preservationists, however, could mean the end of a large chain-store shopping complex proposed as a major draw to the area.
The Weinberg Foundation, which has been planning a 400,000-square-foot Howard Street USA retail building at the corner of West Lexington Street and Park Avenue, would have to reconsider the concept if the city demands the preservation of the two nearly century-old buildings, at 201-219 W. Lexington Street, officials said.
Preliminary sketches of the project called for demolition of the 1928 neo-Gothic Brager-Gutman department store and the adjacent Schulte United building, and replacing them with a box-shaped glass-and-steel structure featuring huge signs for national chains such as the Gap and Old Navy.
"If those buildings are to be preserved, [Howard Street USA] would definitely have to be redrawn, and the whole concept would have to be reconsidered," said Joel Winegarden, director of real estate for the Weinberg Foundation. "I think we would have to study it very carefully and see if it is possible to build under the guidelines."
Other preservation requirements might force the foundation - which has been one of the leaders of the redevelopment project - to redraw plans for a 175-unit apartment tower, proposed for the northeast corner of West Fayette and Howard Streets, and a 550-unit parking garage, proposed for the southwest corner of Clay and Liberty streets.
The fate of these projects is unclear, because the city and the Maryland Historical Trust, a state preservation agency, are hammering out the details of the agreement.
O'Malley said the redrawing of the Weinberg Foundation's plans doesn't mean that revitalization of the area won't succeed, or that the city doesn't welcome the foundation's investment.
"There are very few development projects that end up the way they were originally envisioned," said O'Malley, who as a city councilman last year voted against the ordinance allowing the city to condemn properties as part of the project.
"We are going to do the best we can to preserve the historic character of the west side," he said. "And I think that fears that this will scare away investment and development are not well-founded."
In the city's largest urban renewal effort since the Inner Harbor in the 1970s, the City Council passed an ordinance in May 1999 that would allow the city to condemn 110 buildings in a 12-block area surrounding Howard and Lexington streets. The concept was to breathe new life into the struggling retail district east of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But preservationists complained that the project would require too much demolition and displacement of too many merchants.
To help preservationists, state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, and other legislators added language to the state budget this year. That provision requires the city to sign an agreement with the Maryland Historic Trust before receiving $1 million of the money the state is paying to renovate the Hippodrome Theater, an important part of the west-side redevelopment.
The proposed agreement would preserve 262 of the approximately 500 buildings in a 26-block area bounded by Cathedral Street on the east, West Redwood Street on the south, Greene Street on the west and West Centre Street on the north.
The buildings preserved include many listed in the city's condemnation ordinances, but the agreement goes further to protect more structures in a larger area.
Another 112 buildings have weaker protection. The agreement might allow demolition of some of these buildings, but only if developers meet yet-to-be-written guidelines approved by the Maryland Historical Trust.
The Weinberg Foundation has urged the city to make these guidelines as liberal as possible.
"We have not finalized this yet, and we still have more discussions to go through," said Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer of the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city's development agency.
The proposed agreement puts the buildings at 201-219 W. Lexington St. into the category of weaker protection.
The agreement would prohibit the demolition of the following buildings: the Barenberg Optical Building at 100 Park Ave; the Peanut Shoppe building at 101 W. Lexington St.; the former American National Building at 100 W. Lexington St (now a Payless Shoe Source); and the adjacent Van Dyke and Bacon Shoes store at 206 N. Liberty St.
Also preserved would be several stretches of ornate brick store buildings on Howard Street, including 117-119 N. Howard St. and 109-111 N. Howard St.