Mayor spares historic west side

Renewal focus shifts, with 260 buildings set for preservation

January 09, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

In a major victory for preservationists seeking to save threatened buildings on the west side of downtown, Mayor Martin O'Malley signed an agreement yesterday to preserve at least 260 buildings in an area targeted for condemnation.

The move means that more than half of the buildings in a 26-block zone surrounding Howard Street must be renovated instead of demolished as part of the city's $350 million effort to rebuild the struggling retail district.

The action represents a significant shift in focus for the project, which is the city's largest urban renewal effort since the Inner Harbor.

The revitalization of the neighborhood next to the University of Maryland, Baltimore, is now based on renovating century-old stores into apartments instead of widespread demolition for large parking garages and suburban-style retail stores, an approach favored by the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"The west side of downtown Baltimore is no longer on the endangered list," said O'Malley during a news conference in the former Hecht's department store at Howard and Lexington streets, which developer David Hillman is renovating into 173 apartments.

"We didn't want this to look like some suburban mall or a strip of chain stores, which people could find anywhere," said O'Malley. "We wanted to preserve our historic resources."

Standing beside O'Malley at the signing of the preservation agreement was Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which placed the west side on its national list of "11 most endangered historic places" in 1999.

"Everyone who cares about Baltimore's heritage and its economic development will have reason to celebrate today," said Moe.

Other efforts move ahead

The signing of the agreement between the city and the Maryland Historical Trust does not mean an end to demolition and construction on the west side of downtown.

Still moving ahead are at least six projects, including the state-funded renovation of the Hippodrome Theater, Bank of America's 334-unit Centerpoint apartment complex and the Weinberg Foundation's renovation of the former Stewart's department store into offices.

But the city will now require developers interested in the area to renovate at least 260 of the roughly 500 buildings there.

Under the agreement, 112 other buildings in the area are subject to case-by-case negotiation by the city and Maryland Historical Trust, with demolition possible but discouraged.

Developers would be required to replace these with buildings of modest scale that would match the architectural style of the neighborhood.

The remainder of the buildings in the area - more than 100 - are deemed not to be historically or architecturally significant and may be torn down, according to the agreement.

Project is delayed

The agreement has indefinitely delayed and forced a redrawing of the largest retail project, the $150 million Howard Street USA complex along the 200 block of W. Lexington St. proposed by the Weinberg Foundation and Grid Properties.

Originally sketched as a contemporary-looking series of glass and steel boxes with large signs proclaiming national chains such as the Gap and Old Navy, the project would have required the demolition of at least 42 buildings in a six-block area to create more than 1,000 parking spaces.

The agreement signed yesterday would make this impractical.

Buildings that would be saved include the 1928 neo-Gothic Brager-Gutman department store in the 200 block of W. Lexington St. Also to be preserved are the Peanut Shoppe building at 101 W. Lexington St. and former American National Building in the 100 block of W. Lexington St.

"We have encouraged the Weinberg Foundation and Grid Properties to rethink their project given our commitment to preserving historic buildings," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency.

Weinberg Foundation

Bernard Siegel, president of the Weinberg Foundation, said that the Schmoke administration told the foundation that the city's "No. 1 priority" was creating large parking garages and that the city said it would "demolish whatever was necessary" to quickly change the character of the slumping retail district.

The foundation changed its development plans for the area after the "firestorm" of protest over demolition and the election of O'Malley, who voted against the west-side condemnation ordinance.

"With the change in administrations, we've been told to preserve buildings," said Siegel.

"Everything is very much up in the air."

The foundation may still build something on the south side of Lexington Street, but it will probably be the gradual renovation of single buildings over several years, Siegel said.

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