Landmark of concern

Preservationists, owner differ on how to save building

July 11, 2008|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun reporter

A century-old brick building on a downtown block long-slated for redevelopment would be preserved as a landmark over the objections of the property's owner if a Baltimore preservation panel's recommendation wins approval.

The city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation has recommended landmark status for the now-vacant three-story building at 200 E. Baltimore St., built for the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. in 1905 after the Great Baltimore Fire.

But owner Edison Properties of Newark, N.J., which has been buying property in the block for a decade to eventually build a mixed-used office or residential tower, says the recommendation goes against previous agreements with city officials. Those agreements would allow the developer to proceed with a full development plan before determining the fate of the building. The developer is also negotiating a draft agreement it believes can substitute for the landmark status.

"We're not certain why anyone felt that the building was being threatened because in Edison's mind, we had an agreement with the city to not demolish it going back to 2002," said Al Barry of A.B. Associates, who is representing Edison. "If CHAP's interest is to not have Edison have a midnight demolition on the building, we think our previous agreement with the mayor [Martin O'Malley] or this new draft agreement would certainly address that."

A hearing that was to have been held yesterday by the city's Planning Commission on CHAP's landmark recommendation was postponed to allow city officials and the property owner to reach an agreement. CHAP's recommendation, made in March, requires a review by the Planning Commission and approval by the City Council.

Barry argues that the building had been a target of condemnation and demolition by the city as recently as 2000 and was never included on a list of "notable buildings" requiring special permission before demolition that that city developed as part of an urban renewal plan for the central business district.

He said Edison was given little advance warning that the property was to be considered for landmark status.

Officials in Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration say they are in favor of redeveloping a once-vibrant retail block where Edison now operates a parking lot. But they say they believe the city has an interest in establishing a higher level of protection for historically or architecturally significant buildings. Preservationists lost battles to save downtown Baltimore structures in the past couple of years, with the demolition of the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building in Mount Vernon and a block of 1820s rowhouses near Mercy Medical Center.

"Our interest is in not seeing that structure come down," said Douglas B. McCoach III, the city planning director. "We want to maintain it there for future times when there is a big development. We believe we can find a way to accommodate the development with it there, and landmarking is how we preserve buildings."

Preservationists say 200 E. Baltimore Street, a project of noted architects Parker & Thomas, known for post-fire Beaux Arts structures, is significant. The building is in the Business and Government National Register District, was recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 2001 and was included in the "Built to Last" exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society in 2002, said John Maclay, a preservation activist and past president of Baltimore Heritage Inc. Landmarking is necessary, he said, because Edison has not committed to preserving the building.

Baltimore Heritage has never objected to redevelopment of the parking lot to the east of the building or to demolition of smaller buildings to the north and east in 2004 and 2006, Maclay said.

"It is only this building that we wish to save," Maclay said. "We believe it could be easily built around and preserved as a grand entrance to a larger new structure - something that would lend historical context to this major downtown corner."

Edison in the past has shown the city conceptual plans for a tower that would include street-level shops, a parking garage and either offices, housing or both, Barry said.

The 200 E. Baltimore building was last occupied by a Rite Aid drugstore. Other buildings in the block bounded by Baltimore Street, Calvert Street, Guilford Avenue and Fayette Street have been acquired by Edison over the past decade and were demolished to expand the surface parking lot, which Barry said the company plans to operate until the market improves enough to consider starting a new development. The only buildings remaining are 200 E. Baltimore and the Munsey apartment building, which Edison does not own.

"This is an ideal location for a mixed-use building," said McCoach, the planning director. "It is a very large site and has great access from Calvert Street and a really good presence in downtown. I think we can see significant development. We want to make sure that the little, itty-bitty building on the corner doesn't disappear."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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