Revitalize the West Side through preservation

It's time for a fresh start on the Superblock parcel and a focus using historic tax credits to spur redevelopment

December 16, 2010|By Tyler Gearhart

There's nothing like a fresh perspective to clarify a confusing and complex picture. Baltimore has just received some very valuable advice from out-of-town experts engaged by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and paid for by the Downtown Partnership, Greater Baltimore Committee and other stakeholders. A panel from the Urban Land Institute, a Washington -based organization which promotes best practices for land use and developers, has completed its study of the stalled redevelopment of downtown Baltimore's West Side.

Their key findings: The West Side's wealth of historic buildings is its greatest asset, but the redevelopment has suffered from a lack of vision and leadership. Among the panel's recommendations are that the administration makes the revitalization of the West Side its top economic development priority, that it create a task force co-chaired by the Mayor the new president of the University of Maryland Baltimore, and that it appoint a financial "czar" to oversee the effort. The task force should create a clear vision for the West Side, revisit the existing strategic plan, and identify specific actions steps and desired outcomes to create a thriving mixed-used downtown.

The panel also recommended that the focus of the redevelopment should be on increasing the number of residential units and residents in the area, knowing that a healthy retail sector will follow. Rather than continuing to condemn and acquire properties to assemble large parcels for redevelopment, the city should encourage a building-by-building approach to revitalization. And last, better marketing and branding of attractions like Lexington Market and cultural attractions was strongly encouraged.

This is not the first time Baltimore has tried to figure out what to do with the West Side. Ten years ago, the city initiated a plan to revitalize the 24-block area. After much controversy and listing on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Most Endangered Historic Places, a publically debated plan was adopted to capitalize on the area's unique historic buildings. The West Side was subsequently designated a National Register of Historic Places historic district, making contributing buildings eligible for city, state and federal rehabilitation tax credits.

Redevelopment began and continues, albeit much slower than anyone imagined. The Hippodrome Theater, Centerpoint block, former Hecht and Stewart's department stores and the Abell Building have all been beautifully renovated, attracting new visitors and residents to the West Side. But the West Side's true potential has yet to be realized, including capturing the economic benefits of the thriving University of Maryland Baltimore and the University of Maryland Medical System located within it.

Central to the West Side is the area known as the Superblock, which was condemned and acquired by the city. Regrettably, its rebirth has languished. Seven years have passed since the city first sought proposals to redevelop this core area bounded by Lexington, Fayette, Liberty and Howard streets. Sadly, this is not just a case of bureaucratic malaise. Legally binding agreements have been ignored. The result is that the West Side has lost ground to other areas of the city competing for public support and private investment.

The team chosen in 2003 by the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corporation to redevelop the Superblock has failed to conform to the requirements of the request for proposals, including the West Side strategic plan, the urban renewal plan and agreement with the state historic preservation agency. Regrettably, condemnation of properties and relocation of viable businesses proceeded absent an approved development plan.

Rather than assigning blame for Superblock's paralysis, time is better spent now embracing the preservation-based revitalization strategy set forth by the city a decade ago and re-affirmed by the recent panel. Historic preservation and use of rehabilitation tax credits have successfully transformed downtown areas including SoHo in New York and LoDo in Denver. Baltimore can do the same while experiencing employment gains from the rehabilitation work and newly vibrant West Side.

On December 31, 2010, the city's agreement with the Superblock developer will expire. Unless the developers can clearly meet the site requirements and demonstrate the financial capacity to complete the project, it should not be renewed or extended. It's time for a fresh start and renewed commitment to the revitalization of the Superblock area so that the full potential of the West Side can be realized. Public revenues are too precious to squander on such mismanagement.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake is to be commended for seeking the advice of a distinguished panel of urban design experts. Establishing the vision and leadership to spur the redevelopment process for the Superblock and accelerate momentum in the West Side will earn the mayor and her administration the admiration and respect of residents and visitors alike. We will look back at this moment as when Baltimore began to truly reap the benefits of a revitalized downtown.

Tyler Gearhart is executive director of Preservation Maryland. His e-mail is

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