Group seeks landmark status for Superblock buildings

Move could complicate west-side redevelopment plans

February 10, 2011|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit preservation advocacy group, is asking that 17 city-owned buildings on Baltimore's west side be added to Baltimore's landmark list, a step intended to protect the structures — including the former Read's drugstore — from demolition. Members of the city's preservation commission would have to agree to the landmark designation.

The structures are within the "Superblock" renewal area, where developer Lexington Square Partners wants to build a $150 million complex containing stores, apartments, a hotel and parking. The developer has proposed preserving some of the buildings on the Superblock and partially or completely demolishing others.

Lexington Square's preliminary plan has sparked opposition from preservationists, who say it violates a 2001 agreement stipulating that certain buildings in the area be retained if at all possible. The landmark designation request, made to Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, is part of an effort by Baltimore Heritage to prevent the demolition of buildings that Lexington Square has proposed tearing down, including the former Read's drugstore, the site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in by Morgan State College students.

"These buildings are assets that no other city has and should be the cornerstones for our economic development," Baltimore Heritage's executive director, Johns Hopkins, said in nominating the buildings for landmark listing.

The former Read's building has drawn attention for its role in an early civil rights protest. During a forum held Wednesday evening at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, Morgan State representatives disclosed that the university plans to erect a monument on or near campus to honor students who took part in early civil rights demonstrations.

They said that initial funds for the project are coming from the class of 1956, and that the specific goal is to recognize students who took part in sit-ins and other peaceful demonstrations aimed at integrating the movie theater and other businesses at the Northwood Shopping Center, near the Morgan campus.

Besides the old Read's store at Howard and Lexington streets, the downtown structures nominated for landmark designation include the former Schulte United Co. building and the former Woolworth store on Lexington Street, the former McCrory building on Howard Street, and the former Brager-Gutman store at Lexington Street and Park Avenue.

Adding the Superblock buildings to the city's landmark list would mean that demolition could not occur and no exterior changes could be made without approval from the city's preservation panel. That would complicate efforts by Lexington Square to move ahead with its project.

The preservation commission is scheduled to meet Feb. 16 to review plans for Lexington Square and hear public testimony. That hearing follows public meetings on the project by the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel and the state's preservation agency, the Maryland Historical Trust.

Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of Baltimore's preservation commission, said the Feb. 16 meeting will give preservation commissioners a chance to learn about Lexington Square and prepare a report recommending what should happen with buildings on the block. However, she said, it will not specifically address the landmark designation request.

Kotarba said that the preservation commission's staff is determining whether the buildings nominated by Baltimore Heritage meet the city's criteria for landmark designation.

Bailey Pope, a representative of Lexington Square Partners, said Thursday that adding the buildings to the city landmark list could undermine a review process established before his team bid to redevelop the area. He said the city and state have a process that calls for the Maryland Historical Trust to review its plans for compliance with preservation goals. The trust's director has said the agency will not hold up the project.

Pope said he knows that some preservationists are displeased with the trust's stance and are seeking other ways to block the project. But he warned that giving the city's preservation agency review authority now would add a level of uncertainty to the development process that could discourage others from attempting to redevelop properties on Baltimore's west side.

Pope added that Lexington Square Partners is still working to "strike a balance" — to address preservation concerns and also build a project that will be a catalyst for other redevelopment in the area. "We have a project that we think is a fabulous project and we want to do it," he said.

As to the desire of preservationists and civil rights activists to save the former Read's drugstore, Pope said: "We're very aggressively pursuing how to address it, and we don't have any answers. We're trying to find a way to address the heritage and preserve the integrity of the project."

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