Preservation commission opposes Superblock plan

Preservationists seek to protect former Read's building from demolition

February 16, 2011|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's preservation panel intends to recommend that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake withhold approval of the $150 million Lexington Square redevelopment because it calls for the demolition of historic buildings previously targeted for preservation, including the former Read's drugstore, site of a 1955 civil rights sit-in.

Members of Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation also indicated Wednesday that they would start the process for adding the Read's building to the city's "special list" of historic landmarks, an action that would automatically protect it from demolition for at least six months. In addition, the commissioners said they would request that the city fix the roof of the Read's building and otherwise stabilize it to prevent more deterioration.

Lexington Square, the largest private development planned for Baltimore's west side, would include shops, apartments, a hotel and a parking garage in the area bounded roughly by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Avenue — also known as the Superblock.

The mayor is free to accept or reject the recommendations regarding the Lexington Square plan, which has drawn opposition from preservationists and civil rights leaders. The mayor cannot by law prevent the building's inclusion on the special list of historic landmarks, though she and the City Council would have to approve any plans to add it to a separate, permanent landmark list. The properties targeted for redevelopment are city-owned.

The panel's recommendations came at the end of a four-hour public hearing. Panel members instructed the preservation commission staff to draft a letter to the mayor and the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public agency that oversees downtown development, expressing their findings.

Rawlings-Blake, in a letter this week to a local preservationist group, stated that the project should not be slowed down by starting a landmark designation process for any of the buildings within the Lexington Square boundaries.

"At this point in time, I am not willing to return to square one on the Superblock," Rawlings-Blake wrote. "I do not want to see the developer, after finally attaining [Maryland Historical Trust] approval for the project in late December, suddenly forced to deal with the additional layers of local historic preservation review that special-listing or landmarking would require"

Members of the preservation panel heard testimony from west side property owners and business leaders urging them not to hold up a project intended to rejuvenate the area.

But representatives from Preservation Maryland, Baltimore Heritage, Morgan State University and students from City Neighbors Charter School expressed their disapproval of the development.

Helena Hicks, a preservation commissioner and participant in the 1955 sit-in, announced that Baltimore Heritage plans to hold a public forum at 6 p.m. Monday to discuss how the Read's building could be preserved and how the story of the sit-in could be told. The protest, among others, prompted Read's to change its policy to begin serving all customers, including African-Americans, at its 37 lunch counters around the region. The meeting will be held at New Psalmist Baptist Church, 6020 Marian Ave. in Northwest Baltimore.

John Majors, a member of the Lexington Square team, said the developers would attend that meeting as part of their effort to find a way to strike a balance between preserving history and revitalizing the west side of downtown.

"We're listening," Majors said. "There are more conversations to be had."

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