Clash over historic city building looms

Protected Guilford Ave. warehouse could be razed for 60-story tower in mixed-use project

January 02, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

A development plan that includes a tower to rival the city's tallest skyscrapers could mean the demolition of yet another vestige of downtown's historic architecture.

Setting up what would be downtown Baltimore's third preservation face-off in less than a year, a Washington-area development team is in early talks with the city about building a mixed-use project near the end of the Jones Falls Expressway, including a tower that could rise as high as 60 stories.

To make that happen, the developers would need to raze the Terminal Warehouse, an unimposing brick edifice that has stood on the Guilford Avenue site since 1894 - and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.

The previous two clashes of development versus preservation were over the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building, which the Archdiocese of Baltimore demolished last fall, and several 1820s rowhouses on St. Paul Place, which Mercy Medical Center is fighting to raze. Like them, the Terminal Warehouse is on the city's books as protected property with historic relevance.

The archdiocese waited the legally required time for city officials to consider the Rochambeau demolition. But at Mercy's request, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. sponsored a bill, passed quietly last fall, that had the 1820s homes - some of the oldest downtown - removed from the protected list to expedite the hospital's expansion plans.

"It's very disturbing to hear that yet another notable property [the Terminal Warehouse] ... is being threatened," said John Maclay, a past president of Baltimore Heritage. "We did what we were supposed to do. We got [these buildings] on those lists, and it's a shock that [they're] being questioned."

The developers, RWN Development and Bresler & Reiner, have applied for a permit to demolish the warehouse. Because of the building's protected status, the application process requires a one-year waiting period, which began days ago.

The developers - who own almost the entire 300 block of Guilford Avenue - have an ambitious, two-phase plan in mind for the site, which includes the former Hammerjacks nightclub.

First, said John Ginnever, RWN's executive vice president, they would like to demolish the Hammerjacks building and the garage immediately south of it to begin building a nine-story parking garage with retail at the ground level.

Because those buildings aren't protected, the developers need no special permission to move along with that phase of their plan.

If in a year they get permission from Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano to raze the Terminal Warehouse, now known as Fort Knox Self Storage, that's where they'd like to build the tower that could rise 60 stories.

In September, a Philadelphia developer announced his intentions to build a skyscraper downtown on the site of the former McCormick & Co. spice plant. At 59 stories, it was advertised as having the potential to be Baltimore's tallest.

RWN and its partners haven't decided what exactly they'd like their tower to be - alternatives from apartments to condominiums to a hotel to an assisted-living facility are on the table, Ginnever said, adding that "it depends on where the market leads us." Regardless, there would be more room for retail on the first floor.

"It's hard to find this large of a footprint in the city anymore," the developer said. "We believe we can do a very significant project."

The developers, who also own the Saratoga Court apartments on the south side of the block, plan to refurbish that building, also with ground-floor retail - all in hopes of getting more life on what's a barren stretch of road that fronts the raised highway's desolate underbelly.

"We believe that area is going to liven up in a few years," Ginnever said. "It will be a completely different neighborhood."

Ginnever said his team is fully aware of the controversy surrounding Mercy's rowhouses, which sit just a few blocks west of their Guilford Avenue site, and is trying to be "very sensitive" to preservation issues. They have not ruled out trying to save at least something of the Terminal Warehouse facade.

"We're not trying to demolish the building tomorrow," he said. "We're looking at our options, and we're open to all options and ideas for the site."

Acting Planning Director Gary Cole said the plans, though only in the conceptual stage, sound promising.

"With respect to where the city would like to go, of course we want to increase the residential development within downtown Baltimore. The similar could be said with respect to retail," he said. "The real important thing to the city is that there is still a good deal of interest in developing in downtown."

As for the potential demolition of a protected city building, Cole said his staff hasn't "had time to really delve into it at this point."

But, he added, "We will handle it in a manner that, hopefully, is not as contentious as the Mercy hospital site."

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