Building on Baltimore's history

Neighborhoods: Historic preservation is a powerful tool for economic development.

April 22, 2001|By Tyler Gearhart

In the past several months, long-running disputes over the proposed demolition of the west side of downtown Baltimore, Redwood Street, and Memorial Stadium have been resolved. A significant part of the west side will be preserved, while a significant part of the 100 block of E. Redwood St. is being torn down. The stadium will soon be gone, but its 116-foot memorial facade will be preserved.

Now that the dust has -- or will soon be -- settled, the question remains, why fight for historic buildings?

The Sun Life and Merchants & Miners Transportation Co. buildings, which have been torn down for a Marriott Residence Inn, were distinguished brick and stone buildings. They helped make Redwood the most handsome street downtown. It's hard to miss the irony that if the Southern Hotel -- once a designated city landmark -- hadn't also been demolished, Marriott could have renovated it, and Redwood, once known as the "Wall Street of the South," would have remained intact.

The Sun Life and Merchants buildings could have been converted to apartments to attract new residents and bolster efforts to create a 24-hour downtown.

Memorial Stadium resonated as a landmark in stadium design, a repository of the region's memories, and an incredible reuse opportunity that could have been a signature project for its community and the city.

Instead it is being demolished for an "affordable" retirement community and YMCA to be built by Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a nonprofit developer that has yet to secure sufficient financing.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's commitment to preserve the facade honors the memory of those who served in the world wars, and leaves open the opportunity that a 21st century landmark can be built around and behind it.

But as the city struggles with a growing budget deficit, it is difficult to understand the decisions that led to losing the stadium and the unique economic development opportunity it presented.

The west side of downtown -- a 25-block area known to generations of Baltimoreans as the place to shop -- is an irreplaceable collection of two centuries of American architecture.

Saving neighborhoods

Fortunately, plans to demolish large portions of the area have been abandoned for a preservation-based revitalization strategy.

Based on the success of similar initiatives in cities such as Denver, the west side is set to become a national model for downtown revitalization. And if history is any guide, this neighborhood will take its place among the most popular in the city in the next several years.

History, in this case, is fairly recent. In the 1960s, the city proposed running Interstate 95 along Montgomery Street, one block south of the Inner Harbor.

Federal Hill Park would have been leveled as the highway crossed the harbor to connect with Interstate 83 where Inner Harbor East is now being built. The combined elevated highways would then have plowed through Fells Point and Canton before sweeping north toward Philadelphia.

Preservationists and their allies successfully fought "The Road." I-95 was shifted farther south; and south of Fayette Street, I-83 became a boulevard. Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton became among the city's most desirable neighborhoods, attracting people who could live almost anywhere in the metropolitan area.

Proximity to the water is obviously an attraction, but even more appealing to most residents is the distinctive mix of historic buildings -- homes, markets and stores -- close to jobs in the neighborhood or downtown. That's the same thing the west side will offer. Positive change is coming to the neighborhood, much sooner and with more impact than if more than 150 historic buildings had been demolished.

Like the Can Company in Canton, the catalyst projects on the west side are being driven by state and federal rehabilitation tax credits, powerful development incentives championed by preservation advocates.

Catalyst projects

Already, work is under way to construct apartments in the old Congress Hotel and the old Hecht's department store, and offices in the old Stewart's department store.

Renovation of the 1914 Hippodrome Theater into a performing arts center is to begin this summer, while across the street a dozen historic loft buildings are being converted into the Centerpoint Apartments.

The nearby Lexington Market will soon be getting a multimillion dollar face lift. All of these projects capitalize on what makes the area "urban" and "special" as opposed to trying to duplicate the suburbs. This is the approach espoused by internationally renowned architect/planner and leading new urbanist, Andes Duany, during his recent visit to Baltimore sponsored by the Downtown Partnership.

Despite the demolition controversies surrounding Redwood Street and Memorial Stadium, the O'Malley administration has demonstrated that it recognizes the value of historic preservation as an economic development tool.

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