Workers began knocking down a row of vacant buildings Thursday in the heart of downtown Baltimore's old shopping district, marking the first large-scale demolition for urban renewal targeted at a swath of the west side.
The city is razing much of the north side of the 200 block of W. Lexington St. before handing the property over to a developer who is planning new stores and a tower that could house offices, apartments or a hotel.
The project is part of larger plans to revitalize a collection of blocks near Lexington Market known as the "superblock" - plans that have been stalled for nearly a decade. City officials, including Mayor Sheila Dixon, hailed the start of demolition for the project as a key milestone.
"This is key to taking the west side to another level," Dixon said. "Despite the recession, despite the economy, we're moving this vision forward. We're going to get the superblock done."
The developer, C-W Superblock LLC, made up of the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, will redevelop the block of West Lexington between Howard Street and Park Avenue. One building, the former Stewart's department store, has been redeveloped and now serves as the headquarters of Catholic Relief Services.
Zed Smith, vice president of development for the Cordish Cos., said the timing and ultimate uses of the West Lexington Street redevelopment hinge on market demand and the still-evolving plans of a separate development team that controls the bulk of the superblock area south of West Lexington Street.
As part of a land disposition agreement with Weinberg and Cordish, the city was required to assemble the property and clear the land, which contains no historic buildings, before selling it, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the agency that has led the superblock project for the city. Even though the city is razing the site, the developer is not required to start until the larger superblock project on the south side of West Lexington is under way, Brodie said.
The developer of that parcel, Lexington Square Partners LLC, was selected in competitive bidding by the city in early 2005 to redevelop an area bounded by Fayette, Howard and Lexington streets and Park Avenue.
Lexington Square envisions small- and medium-size stores, market-rate apartments in a 32-story tower, and a 150-room boutique hotel, but it has faced delays amid property disputes, litigation and the recession.
Opponents have challenged the plans in court and recently took their case to Maryland's Court of Appeals. They contend that the plans should be scrapped and the city should seek new proposals for the site. The lawsuit says the redevelopment plans fail to follow preservation goals under a Memorandum of Agreement signed by city officials in 2001. Lexington Square has said that it is awaiting the outcome of the court case before it proceeds.
Smith said the Cordish plan would complement whatever Lexington Square eventually builds and would include ground-level shops and a tower whose use will be determined by market demand. Under an agreement with the city, the Cordish team must build at least 70,000 square feet, but Smith said the company hopes to build more despite the difficult economy.
"If you find the right use, the financing will fall into place," Smith said.
The superblock is one of the largest redevelopment parcels on the west side, where revitalization efforts over the past decade have led to the reopening of the Hippodrome Theatre and new offices, shops and apartments.
During a ceremony to mark the start of the six-month demolition by P&J Contracting on the Cordish project, Dixon traded in heels for boots, donned a hard hat and climbed aboard a backhoe to punch a hole through the wall of the building at 204 W. Lexington St., a spot where the Beehler Umbrella Factory operated from 1886 to 1908.
Dixon, 56, recalled going to theaters and spending earnings from a part-time job when she was in high school at Lexington Street shops, including one where she bought her first leather coat on layaway.
"I know what this looked like" in the heyday, she said.
Dixon, who will leave office Feb. 4 after resigning Jan. 6 in a plea agreement, called the superblock redevelopment a "sticky item" she faced early in her term and said she helped to broker the land swap between the city and Weinberg. It ultimately paved the way for developers of the separate projects to begin moving ahead. She recalled telling then-Mayor Martin O'Malley just before he became governor, "You do what you have to do in the state, and I'll take care of this," she said.