In redeveloping downtown Baltimore, history matters

Superblock developers must preserve the distinctiveness of downtown Baltimore's history and heritage

April 02, 2011|By Stephanie Meeks

The current proposal from the developer of Baltimore's Superblock departs drastically from a shared vision for the west side — one that leverages distinctive historic buildings and a mass transit system with progressive, world-class redevelopment.

In the metropolitan competition for jobs, retail and residents, Baltimore's primary market edge comes from the ambiance derived from its extraordinary architecture and cultural heritage. What makes Baltimore a unique and beautiful place in which to live and work also makes the city a wonderful place to visit. Time and again, studies have shown that tourists value distinctiveness and authenticity, while existing residents and prospective newcomers alike benefit from the quality of life offered by a vibrant mix of historic and new architecture. These qualities — this heritage — cannot be purchased or replicated.

Demolishing a portion of downtown Baltimore's historic fabric, as the current plan on offer from Lexington Square Partners would do, sacrifices the city's market edge unnecessarily. The buildings on this block share the story of Baltimore, in all its great richness and diversity. In 1904, the block stood at the edge of the Great Baltimore Fire as it consumed and destroyed the center of Baltimore's historic downtown. These hardy survivors include rowhouses on Fayette Street built before the Civil War and a 1870s cast-iron front commercial building, one of only a handful of remaining examples of a uniquely Baltimore form of construction. With the city's rebirth, enterprising businessmen transformed the block and the west side into a destination, not only for elite shoppers at big department stores like Hutzler's and Stewart's but also for working-class citizens who shopped at five and dime stores, like McRory's and Woolworth's along Lexington and Howard streets. Art Deco details and colorful tile reflected the boundless creativity of local architects and builders.

Perhaps most significantly, these same buildings played a central role in Baltimore's long struggle for civil rights. Read's drugstore, a 1934 Art Deco building designed by Baltimore architects Smith & May, gained national significance in the 1950s as the site of student-led lunch counter sit-ins that led to the integration of the entire Read's chain. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposal to save two facades of the old Read's drugstore is a step in the right direction. But it is not enough. Baltimore must do more to preserve and incorporate the Superblock's historic buildings within the development proposed by Lexington Square Partners.

Baltimore has frequently been a leader in preservation-based urban revitalization. In fact, the city's success in pairing preservation with economic development led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to select Baltimore for its 2012 National Main Streets Conference, which attracts 1,500 attendees. The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes so strongly in this vision for Baltimore's west side that we have already invested in it. A prime example: through our subsidiary, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, we provided a $10 million allocation of New Markets Tax Credits to help finance the rehabilitation of the Hippodrome Theatre, which led the way for further large-scale revitalization efforts that include the Stewarts Building, the Hecht Company and 39 West Lexington. These kinds of projects, paired with compatible new construction that capitalizes on transit opportunities, should be the foundation for the west side's future.

The city should look to examples of downtown retail success, such as Charleston, S.C., where both locally owned and national chain retailers co-exist side by side in a mix of new construction and rehabilitated historic buildings. Providence, R.I., is another excellent example of a city that has taken full advantage of the retail potential of its historic downtown while accommodating national retail outlets in new buildings. Knoxville, Tenn., hardly a tourist mecca, has managed to bring suburban residents downtown to eat on weeknights through the adaptive reuse of its Market Square retail center into a restaurant and entertainment center. And Gay Street — Knoxville's equivalent to Baltimore's former Howard Street department store corridor — has been revitalized through the rehab of the Historic Tennessee Theater and the new construction of a Regal multiplex movie theater that is now outperforming its suburban competitors. The ongoing success of Boston's Faneuil Hall should also be instructive about the kind of historically minded redevelopment that is sustainable.

These examples show that success in downtown retailing takes imagination and recognition of what cities can offer that the suburbs never will. Enticing urban residents away from the suburban malls they have grown accustomed to driving to isn't as easy as building smaller-scale centers downtown, especially with the extraordinary cost of parking that has come with Baltimore's earlier attempts.

The National Trust would welcome the opportunity to work directly with the city and its partners to help set a successful trajectory for the Superblock and Baltimore's west side. We know from decades of experience that preservation is often the only successful route to downtown economic development. We feel confident that the city and Lexington Square Partners can do both.

Stephanie Meeks is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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