Read's walls to be saved

Lexington Square team revises plan for Superblock

  • A rendering of the revised plan for the former Read's drugstore building downtown.
A rendering of the revised plan for the former Read's drugstore… (Rendering courtesy of Baltimore…)
March 14, 2011|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Responding to pressure from preservationists and civil rights activists fighting to preserve the former Read's drugstore building downtown, developers of the $150 million Lexington Square project that would have razed the building now agree to incorporate two of its exterior walls into their project.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to announce Tuesday that the developer, Lexington Square Partners, has agreed to save the walls facing Howard and Lexington streets from the building — site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in. Additional plans to commemorate the sit-in will be announced in the coming weeks, according to the mayor's office.

The developer's previous plan drew strong opposition from preservationists, who said the Read's building should be saved as a national civil rights landmark. The downtown sit-in and others at Baltimore-area stores, which had a policy of not serving African-Americans, prompted the Read's chain to begin serving all patrons, white and black, at its 37 lunch counters.

In a statement released ahead of Tuesday's announcement, Rawlings-Blake hailed Lexington Square's decision to save the Read's building walls as a sign that the developers are serious about wanting to honor the site's history.

"This is a big step toward a reasonable compromise on this issue," the mayor's statement read. "Honoring our history and building for our future should not be mutually exclusive goals. I'm very pleased that Lexington Square Partners is taking real steps to commemorate the Read's site and is moving forward with new investment for the west side."

But the proposal may not be enough to appease some activists.

Helena Hicks, who took part in the 1955 sit-in as a Morgan State student and now serves on the city's preservation commission, said she was not satisfied with the idea of saving two exterior walls. The sit-in predated by five years a more famous sit-in at an F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C.

"Two walls are nothing," she said. "How does that save the building? What kind of foolishness is that?"

And some preservationists said they remain concerned over the proposed demolition of all or parts of other buildings in the mixed-use development in an area bounded roughly by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Avenue, also known as the Superblock.

"This change shows that Lexington Square's economic argument for the demolition of Read's and other buildings doesn't make sense," said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage. "For many years, they said they couldn't budge on any buildings. If they can budge on this one, why can't they budge on others?"

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, said he remains concerned about the degree to which Lexington Square's revised plan fails to comply with a 2001 preservation agreement between the city and the state, which called for the Read's building and others on the block to be preserved if at all possible.

Also on Tuesday, members of a state preservation panel, the Maryland Historical Trust, are scheduled to meet to determine what action to take on the Lexington Square project. The agency's director, Rodney Little, wrote a letter to city officials in December saying he would not hold up the Lexington Square project even though the design does not comply with the 2001 preservation agreement.

Four groups — Preservation Maryland, Baltimore Heritage, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Westside Renaissance — have asked the trust's board members to overrule Little and rescind the December approval letter, an action that could send the project back to the drawing board.

Over the past two months, numerous groups have joined the call to preserve the Read's building and others on the Superblock, including students from City Neighbors Charter School, two local chapters of the Service Employees International Union, Morgan State University students and even a son of the former head of the Read's chain. The controversy also has received national attention.

According to the plans by Peter Fillat Architects of Baltimore, Lexington Square will be a mixed-use project containing 179,261 square feet of retail space, a 27-story tower with about 300 apartments, a hotel with about 120 guest rooms or additional apartments inside the former Brager-Gutman's department store, and a parking garage for 725 cars. Plans call for a mixture of preserved buildings, partially preserved buildings and new construction.

City officials and members of the development team say preserving the entire Read's building would be difficult because it has been vacant for many years and is in poor condition. Moreover, they said, it no longer contains the lunch counter or other fixtures from when Read's operated it.

With the preservation of the Read's facades, they say, nearly 90 percent of the wall along Lexington Street will be preserved and more than 75 percent of the wall along Howard Street will be preserved.

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