Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake urged preservationists Monday to speed approval of plans to redevelop the west side's "Superblock" area, as she toured the boarded-up block with several ministers and a team of developers.
"This needs to go forward," said Rawlings-Blake, when asked about a city preservation commission's decision to temporarily halt demolition of a drugstore that was the scene of a historic civil rights protest. "The delay has gone on long enough."
The mayor's visit came as two city panels are scheduled to meet this week to decide whether the $150 million Lexington Square project can move ahead. She spoke of the economic benefits of the project and was backed by a recently formed group of ministers — including her own pastor — who support some of her high-profile development initiatives.
Bailey Pope, senior vice president for design and sustainability planning for the Dawson Co., one of five developers involved in the project, guided Rawlings-Blake and three religious leaders along Lexington and Howard streets, pointing to ornate second- and third-story facades that he said would be preserved.
Wearing hard hats and breathing masks, the group ventured into the former Read's drugstore where a group of Morgan State University students staged a 1955 lunch counter sit-in that predated many significant civil rights protests. Panels hang from the ceiling, and broken tiles and hunks of twisted metal litter the floor in the musty space.
The developers have agreed to preserve two outer walls of the building, fund urban development programs at Morgan State and build a marker to commemorate the protest, but some civil rights leaders and preservationists say that more should be done to recognize the scene of the sit-in.
Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he feared that developers would renege on promises to preserve the facades. He said the developers should abandon plans to create larger retail spaces and focus on attracting smaller stores.
Part of the ceiling of the former drugstore — which saw its lunch counter removed decades ago and has sat vacant for at least 10 years — caved in recently, Rawlings-Blake said.
The decay "underscores the need for us to do something with this project," said Rawlings-Blake, adding that Lexington Square has the "potential to be a catalyst" for the redevelopment of the west side.
The ministers, who are part of an organization called Community Churches for Community Development, said they backed the project because it would spur the creation of new jobs. About 600 construction workers and 750 full-time workers will be employed, developers say.
"There are many nameless, faceless people who are hoping this project will move forward" because they need jobs, said the Rev. Sheridan Todd Yeary, senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church, where Rawlings-Blake is a parishioner. Yeary, along with the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, and the Rev. Arnold Howard, of Enon Baptist Church, founded the development advocacy group last year out of a desire to see the $1.5 billion State Center redevelopment project move ahead.
On Tuesday, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation will meet to review plans for the project, including the design for the former Read's building. Last month, the panel voted to add the Reads' building to a "special list" of city landmarks, giving the commission authority to approve or disapprove of development plans involving the structure.
The city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel is scheduled Thursday to review plans for the project, over which it has jurisdiction because the site is part of an urban renewal area. The panel previously voted to withhold design approval until it received more information about the developer's plans for the Read's building and others nearby. This is the first UDARP meeting since the developers agreed to preserve two walls of the Read's building and incorporate them into the project.
Helena Hicks, who participated in the 1955 sit-in and is also a member of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, chastised the ministers for their support of the project. Hicks said more must be done to preserve the former drugstore and the historic surrounding buildings.
"I want it to be an intact development," she said. "Keep the buildings and have them remodeled or redone."
"I'm not used to this foolishness," said Hicks, 76, a retired city and state employee. "I grew up in a time where you stood up for your rights. When I leave [this world], somebody is going to remember that I stood up for civil rights and I stood up to remember the struggles for those rights."
Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Gunts contributed to this article.