Save Read's? It's too late

Our view: The Superblock needs to balance a respect for history with modern needs

March 15, 2011

It is commendable that preservationists and civil rights activists want to bring attention to the 1955 sit-ins at downtown Baltimore's Read's drugstore, which forced the integration of the chain's 37 lunch counters in the region. But the idea that the only way to do so is by preserving the entire building is misguided. The interior has been remodeled several times since then, the lunch counter is long gone, and after years of vacancy and neglect, the exterior is crumbling, and the interior is beyond dilapidated. Perhaps at one time, preserving the physical structure of the building would have been the right way to safeguard the protesters' legacy, but now it is far too late.

A new plan offered this week by the developers in consultation with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake manages to honor the role Read's drugstore played in the struggle for equal rights while at the same time allowing the revitalization of the site into an economically viable part of downtown. The proposal, which Mayor Rawlings-Blake and other city officials describe as a reasonable compromise between the desire to preserve historic buildings and the need to attract new businesses and jobs to the city, would retain the two exterior walls of the drugstore along Lexington and Howard streets but remodel the interior to create the floor space required by national retail chains. The developers also committed to creating a memorial inside the complex that would acknowledge the site's historic importance to the civil rights movement.

Some preservationists, however, aren't satisfied with just keeping the two exterior walls of the original structure. Apparently, they want the developers to preserve the entire building intact, along with every other building on the block. If they had their way, the city would scrap its plans for the Superblock entirely, dump the current development team, and wait for someone else to come in and sink millions into recreating the buildings the way they were decades ago, regardless of whether that's commercially viable today.

That's hardly a "reasonable compromise." We appreciate the interest of those in Baltimore's civil rights community in securing a fitting commemoration of the sit-ins that occurred at Read's. But the best way to do that is to work with the developers to create the sort of civil rights monument that engages people in their daily lives — as the drugstore lunch counter once did — not to sink the whole project in hopes of reviving a crumbling structure that is now but a shadow of its former glory, and could much better be used to help move a part of the city that has long been ailing back toward health.

That's exactly what the long-delayed Superblock plan would accomplish. The proposed makeover of the site bounded by Howard, Fayette and Lexington streets and Park Avenue on the west side of downtown is aimed at revitalizing a once grand section of downtown that fell into decline decades ago but is now poised for a comeback. The plan called for demolishing some older structures and folding others into a new retail shopping plaza suitable for big-box stores like Target and Best Buy.

Baltimore has every reason to be proud of its historic architecture and to preserve as much of it as possible. But no city can afford to live entirely in the past; those that can't adapt to changing times are likely to be left behind. Striking an appropriate balance between respect for the past and modern needs involves tough choices, but such choices have to be made if cities are to remain vital places to live and work. That is the choice the developers and Mayor Rawlings-Blake are offering. The Maryland Historical Trust, which will determine whether the project can go forward, should take it.

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