Time to stop fighting about Superblock and start building

April 18, 2011

What a difference two walls make. In turning down a compromise proposal from the developers of the Superblock that would preserve two exterior walls of the former Read's drugstore, the city's preservation commission voted last week to temporarily add the building to a list of historical landmarks. This action means that, in the commission's view, all four walls of the now-dilapidated building have to be preserved — and the $150 million redevelopment of the west side project will be delayed at least six months.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings- Blake, who had helped to craft the compromise, called the decision by the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) a bad one. She is right.

At issue was how to honor the role the drugstore played in the struggle for civil rights. It was the site of a 1955 sit-in that forced the integration of Read's 37 lunch counters. The Superblock developers, Lexington Square Partners, had committed to placing a memorial inside the building that would acknowledge the site's historical importance to the civil rights movement, but their plan calls for knocking down two walls. This was not acceptable to the CHAP. One member, Eva Higgins, characterized the developers' proposal as "selling black history down the river. "

The mayor and a member of the development team, Harold Dawson Jr. (who are African-American), disagree. They contend — correctly, we believe — that the proposal would best honor the legacy of the sit-in and by allowing the Superblock plan to go forward, injecting jobs and new life to an area sorely in need of a boost.

There may, perhaps, have been a time when preserving the entire physical structure of Read's would have been the right way to safeguard the location's civil rights legacy. But as this page has noted before, after years of vacancy and neglect the lunch counter is gone, the exterior is crumbling and the interior is dilapidated. A better alternative is to create a civil rights monument in a vital Superblock — one that engages people in their daily lives, much like a lunch counter once did.

Another issue, and one we think is primarily motivating the dispute, is how many Superblock buildings, in addition to Read's, will be kept intact under the Lexington Square Partners plan. The developers say they need to raze approximately a dozen buildings and keep the facades of others on the site, which is bounded by Howard, Fayette and Lexington streets and Park Avenue. These demolitions, they say, are needed to create the type of floor space needed to attract big box retailers.

Preservationists counter that the plan knocks down too many structures. They criticize it as offering a big-city version of a suburban shopping experience and hold out the hope that another developer will come along who will put smaller-scale retail shops in renovated buildings.

By rejecting the proposed compromise on the Read's civil rights memorial and further delaying the already slow-moving Superblock plan, the preservation commission seems to be saying that it, too, is hoping that a new developer will take over the Superblock project. We think that is unlikely and that stalling the project with disputes about how many original walls there should be at a renovated Read's is misguided.

It is time to stop fighting about the Superblock and start building it.

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