West-side project meets resistance

City preservationists say old retail district should be saved

December 12, 2008|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Developers of a $150 million project to revitalize a crucial piece of Baltimore's west side met opposition yesterday from city preservationists, who say the developers need to save more of the old retail district.

A plan presented yesterday to a city design panel showed a 28-story, T-shaped apartment tower, a 120-room boutique hotel with a restaurant and small- and medium-size stores in an area bounded by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Avenue.

The developer, Lexington Square Partners, told the Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel it plans to preserve at least two buildings it considers significant. Those structures include the long-vacant Brager-Gutman's department store building at Lexington Street and Park Avenue, which would be converted to a hotel, and the former Howard Furniture building on Howard Street. Plans call for the tower, set back from Lexington Street, to house up to 360 apartments and three stories of shops along Lexington.

But developers still face opposition from preservationists, who say the developer is required by a 7-year-old agreement to save more structures in the heart of downtown's former shopping district, once home to four thriving department stores.

While other west-side projects have moved ahead, such as the Centerpoint apartment and retail redevelopment and the reopening of the Hippodrome Theatre, the blighted superblock area just west of Charles Center has languished. The project has been delayed by property acquisition conflicts, lawsuits and changing market conditions.

Lexington Square officials, selected in competitive bidding by the city in early 2005, said they hope to design the project in a way that will attract retailers and allow for construction of the new tower atop a six-level parking garage. They also said they plan to preserve some structures, staying true to the district's historic nature.

But Bailey T. Pope, vice president of design and construction for the Dawson Co., a partner in Lexington Square, said the extensive preservation envisioned for the area in a 2001 memo "is not economically viable." That agreement was between the city and the Maryland Historical Trust. Pope made the comments after yesterday's introduction of the project to the city panel, the first of three steps in seeking design approval.

Pope said the developers can't move beyond preliminary talks with interested retailers until they iron out the design and determine how space will be configured.

Tyler Gearhart, chairman of Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, told members of the design panel that preservationists welcome revitalization and believe the project "is moving in the right direction."

But, he added, "I don't think it's gotten to where it needs to be."

The developer hopes to win design approval and move forward with the first demolition by the middle of next year, said Roderick W. Teachey, vice president of development for Dawson. Much of the timing will depend upon the developer's ability to get financing after completing the design process, Teachey said. He said the group is hopeful it can secure financing despite the straitened credit environment.

All of the properties in the project area have been acquired by the city and will soon be turned over to the developer, M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said yesterday.

"The big idea is to create an urban neighborhood where there isn't one," Brodie told panel members.

Such a project is viable for the west side, he said, now that increasing numbers of empty-nesters and young professionals have moved downtown, driving the need for additional urban retail and housing.

The project would bring in up to 150,000 square feet of new stores, creating the largest concentration of shops on the west side.

"It's a small dent in what we perceive to be major demand for quality retail in downtown Baltimore," said Peter Fillat, whose firm, Peter Fillat Architects, is designing Lexington Square.

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