Building anew while preserving the old


Keeping the distinctiveness of Maryland Casualty is aim of Rotunda renovation plan

Architecture Column


When developer Bernard Manekin and his partners converted the old Maryland Casualty Co. headquarters to a shopping and office center in the early 1970s, they were ahead of their time.

There weren't many examples of old buildings being recycled for new uses, in Baltimore or elsewhere in the country, during those years. Manekin's venture, the Rotunda at 711 W. 40th St., became both an anchor and an amenity for the neighborhoods around it.

Now new owners are seeking to build on that pioneering effort and use the 11.5-acre Rotunda property to create the next generation of urban development, while preserving the landmark structure that made it so distinctive in the first place.

Hekemian & Co. of Hackensack, N.J., plans to spend $100 million to renovate the Maryland Casualty building, which dates from the 1920s, and add more shopping and parking space and up to 400 residences.

The latest plans, by Design Collective of Baltimore, will be presented during a community forum at noon Wednesday at the Downtown Center of the Johns Hopkins University at Charles and Fayette streets. The presentation marks the start of a weekly series of design forums sponsored by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

Hekemian's vision is to take the land now used for surface parking and create a mixed-use development more like the Market Common at Clarendon in northern Virginia or the Village of Cross Keys in Baltimore, said Al Barry of A. B. Associates, a land planning consultant working on the project.

"Hekemian saw this as an opportunity to create a higher density Cross Keys, which took the strengths of the Rotunda but built on them in a way that makes it an even more vibrant community center and a retail center for the whole area," Barry said.

Inspired by Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, the Rotunda represented an untried approach to urban development in pre-Harborplace Baltimore, with tenants such as a grocery store, drug store, movie theater and several dozen specialty shops. The retail and office spaces played off the character of the building, with its 65-foot bell tower.

The retail portion had some shortcomings created by the decision to work with an existing structure, such as dead-end corridors and limited space for its grocery store, a 23,000-square-foot branch of Giant Food. Over time, many of the retail tenants left for other locations, and Giant has expressed a desire to expand.

The key to enlarging the Rotunda, Barry said, is to build on land now used as a parking lot and take advantage of the sloping site to create a new level of retail space. By working with the change in grade, it is possible to create a new Giant branch closer to the size of the chain's newest stores -- about 70,000 square feet -- and add another 50,000 square feet of retail space to the 70,000 already in place, he explained.

Plans also call for 1,600 parking spaces, townhouses along 38th Street, about 300 apartments and 100 condominiums and a realigned main entrance off West 40th Street.

"It's a very complex scheme that takes advantage of the 40-foot drop in elevation to put a Giant below the grade" of the existing retail center, Barry said. "The old building will be renovated, and an appendage that was put on the west side for Giant will be removed."

Hekemian plans to start construction in the spring of 2007 and finish work about two years later. The company also is presenting its plans this week to community groups and to the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel.

Chris Bell, Maryland representative for Hekemian, will lead the presentation at the Hopkins forum, which is free and open to the public. Other speakers include Barry and architect Richard Burns.

Spring design forums

Eight design forums will be held this spring at noon Wednesdays at Hopkins' Downtown Center. All are free and open to the public. After the Rotunda presentation, future subjects are:

April 5: Architect Michael Murphy on the restoration of the Maryland Masonic Temple on Charles Street to the Tremont Grand conference center.

April 12: City planning director Otis Rolley III on Baltimore's new master plan.

April 19: Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan on "Branding Baltimore" and strategies for marketing the city and its attractions.

April 26: Jack Danna, coordinator of the Baltimore Main Streets program, on redevelopment efforts in the Pigtown neighborhood also known as Washington Village.

May 3: Hannah Byron, director of the Division of Film, Television & Video for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, presenting an insider's account of film production in Baltimore.

May 10: Architects Diane Cho and Rima Namek on the expansion of Baltimore School for the Arts.

May 17: David Funk of Charles Street Development Corp. and Ed Myers of Kittleson and Associates, discussing plans for a Charles Street trolley to connect the Inner Harbor and Hopkins' Homewood campus.

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