Block plans under debate

Developers seek OK to demolish iron buildings

December 26, 2005|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

A year after officials refused to allow a "facade-ectomy" on a protected west-side block, deeming the buildings there too historic for that kind of procedure, the same developers now want permission to demolish the structures altogether.

The developers say that without demolition - their foiled facade-ectomy would have torn down everything but the historic facades - their planned multimillion-dollar overhaul of the block isn't feasible.

But preservationists are equally adamant about saving the block, a key link between downtown and the nascent west-side renewal. It's an urban stretch that includes some of Baltimore's only remaining cast-iron buildings.

"It's a virtually intact block of historic buildings in a very important location," says Baltimore Heritage Director Johns Hopkins. "This is a great one - this is one of the defining elements of Baltimore."

Two years ago, with some degree of fanfare, city officials announced the city's choice to redevelop the 400 block of W. Baltimore St.

Just steps from the Hippodrome Theatre and the $80 million Centerpoint apartment homes with its brand-new Starbucks, the block is widely considered to be a crucial piece of the city's west-side redevelopment efforts.

The chosen team, David S. Brown Enterprises, A&R Development Corp., and Baltimore Street shop owner Steve Samuelson planned to spend $15 million converting the block's century-old storefronts, now a scrappy collection of shops, into modern offices and space for national chain restaurants.

The developers also promised to honor the city's 1999 pact with preservationists to retain most of the buildings.

Yet in December 2004, when the team presented the city's architecture review panel with its initial plan for the block - the facade-ectomy - officials rejected it for failing to show enough deference to the street's history.

Despite that rebuke, the developers now insist that demolition is their only option.

Anthony T. Rodgers, A&R's executive vice president, declined to comment for this story, while David S. Brown Vice President Arthur Adler did not return phone calls.

However, Rodgers has made his intentions for the block clear to area preservation organizations and to the city's planning department.

He wrote of his intention to seek an exception to the urban renewal plan, the ordinance that protects the block, in a recent letter to Hopkins and Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland.

"The modification is necessary [to] make any development plans ... feasible," Rodgers wrote, telling the two he wanted to demolish both sides of the block.

Rodgers added that he wouldn't "necessarily" demolish all of the structures.

"Our development team understands the passion of the historic community and understands that many will fight this change; however we feel it is required for us even to reach an amenable development accord."

Samuelson, who owns a jewelry store on the block, said he wasn't aware of Rodgers' and Adler's plans. But he said he was eager to see the project move forward.

"It's out of my control," Samuelson said. "I'm sitting in the middle of all this garbage. I want to see it done as quick as anybody."

Planning Director Otis Rolley III said there is little chance the city would bend its rules to grant the developers their wish.

"Demolition is just not an option there," Rolley said.

Hopkins is still concerned.

"It's a serious threat," he said. "They're dead serious with this."

Though preservationists would hate to lose any of the buildings on the block, where buildings date to the 1800s, they're particularly concerned about the cast-iron structures.

In the mid-1800s, cast iron became a popular building material but by the 20th century, cheaper metals had largely replaced it.

Baltimore's fire of 1904 wiped out a once-rich reserve of iron edifices. Many of those that survived the fire were razed in the 1970s for the Inner Harbor and Charles Center redevelopment efforts.

According to the book Baltimore's Cast-Iron Buildings & Architectural Ironwork, Baltimore had more than 100 iron buildings a century ago. By 1962, just 36 were left and by 1991, only 10.

Of what's left, two are in the 400 block of W. Baltimore St.

After the hard-won battle to shield the block from development threats, former Baltimore Heritage President John Maclay said preservationists aren't about to give an inch.

"We won that then," he said, "and we certainly don't intend to lose it now."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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