City panel criticizes redevelopment plan for west-side block

Developers would preserve historic buildings' facades, replace their interiors

December 24, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

A daring design that melds historical and contemporary elements on a key west-side block needs more work, a city design review board ruled yesterday.

Seeing for the first time the unconventional plan to overhaul the 400 block of W. Baltimore St., the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel balked at what developers described as a "facade-ectomy." The plan preserves the facades of the historic buildings and storefronts along Baltimore Street but removes the insides of the structures and adds new, glass offices that rise behind them.

The panel sent developers A&R Development Corp. and David S. Brown Enterprises back to the drawing board, asking for a reworking of the design and more deference to the street's history.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about the 400 block of W. Baltimore St. incorrectly quoted Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust. In criticizing a proposal for the site, he described it as a "facade-omy," not a "facade-ectomy."
The Sun regrets the error.

"It's possible to do this and come off well architecturally and economically, but it's hard," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, a panel member and president of Baltimore Development Corp. "There's an artificiality about it, seeing the facade and knowing there's nothing behind it."

Proponents of the city's west-side revitalization consider the 400 block of W. Baltimore St. a gateway, linking the west side with the more vibrant areas of downtown.

Steps away from the newly refurbished Hippodrome Theatre and the $80 million Centerpoint mixed-use project, the Baltimore Street project could give the west side efforts momentum.

The $15 million proposal includes 150,000 square feet of office space above first-floor retail space. Though the panel didn't approve the plan, Tony Rodgers, vice president of A&R, said the setback shouldn't throw the development off course for a planned June groundbreaking.

"We agreed with most of the comments and will take a look back and address them," Rodgers said.

Rodgers compares the plan for the block with M Street in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, where blocks of historic buildings have been turned into shops and restaurants.

In Baltimore, this is the first time the concept has been tried on such a grand scale. It has succeeded with properties such as the Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point and the American Visionary Art Museum in Federal Hill, however, said the plan's architect, Chris Parts of Hord Coplan Macht.

"We think the additions make a stronger block," Parts said.

Panel members seemed skeptical of the developer's attempt to blend the old with the new. Stan Britt pointed out that although the approach is used extensively in Washington, not all projects work.

Mario Schack said he had always considered such a design "an absolute no-no," bucking traditional design rules. "So one has to develop a sympathy for what you're doing," Schack said, "which is not that easy to do."

Historians also worry that the development would demolish rare and meaningful structures.

According to the book Baltimore's Cast-iron Buildings & Architectural Ironwork by James D. Dilts and Catharine F. Black, the street is brimming with history. Some of the city's last remaining iron buildings are on the block, as is one of the last two brownstones in the downtown business district.

A century ago, Baltimore had more than 100 iron buildings. According to the book, 36 were left by 1962 and 10 by 1991. They're "clearly an endangered species," the book says, adding that "they represent an architecture of unique clarity and articulation, structural significance and historical importance to the city."

Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said she was pleased that the plan would preserve the facades, but she encouraged the developers to also preserve the interior space.

Rogers said his team considered retaining the insides of the historic buildings but that tenants want large swaths of uninterrupted space, requiring the developers to take down the walls separating the old buildings. That might allow one tenant to have as much as a whole block to work with.

The Maryland Historic Trust also doesn't want to see the insides of the buildings removed. Rodney Little, director of the trust, said that portion of Baltimore Street was once the western portal to the city, a historically vital spot.

"We would hope to see as much of the original buildings preserved as possible," he said, adding, "I think a `facade-ectomy' on the site would be particularly unfortunate."

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