Read's drugstore preservation plan clears a key hurdle

Superblock development moves forward but still needs more approvals

May 10, 2011|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Developers of the $150 million Lexington Square project planned for Baltimore's west side cleared a key hurdle Tuesday when Baltimore's preservation commission voted to give preliminary approval to a plan to save two exterior walls of the former Read's drugstore as part of the project, rather than requiring preservation of the entire structure.

After hearing more than three hours of testimony, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, voted 9-1 to accept a plan from Lexington Square Partners and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to save the north and west facades of the former Read's building, the site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in.

CHAP also voted, 8-2, to hold off on attempting to add any adjacent buildings to the city's landmark list so the developers can complete their plans for the project. Bounded roughly by Howard, Lexington and Fayette streets and Park Avenue — part of the city's so-called Superblock — Lexington Square is the largest single private development currently planned for Baltimore's west side.

The developers must still come back to CHAP for final approval of their plans for restoring the Read's facades. But Tuesday's votes mean that, for now, the developers have satisfied one of several review panels that will help determine whether they receive construction permits.

On a visit to the Read's building Monday, Rawlings-Blake urged CHAP to approve the latest plan, asking the commissioners not to block the project, which is expected to bring 750 permanent jobs to the city. "CHAP needs to allow this project to move forward," she said. "We can't afford any more delays. We need jobs."

After Tuesday's CHAP meeting, Rawlings-Blake said she was pleased with the actions of the commissioners and others who supported the project, especially a faith-based group called Community Churches for Community Development.

"This is about jobs," the mayor said in an interview Tuesday evening. "This is about the project moving forward. I want to take Baltimore to the next level, which requires bold action."

The developers are scheduled to present their latest plans on Thursday to Baltimore's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel, a group that withheld design approval last year. Lexington Square Partners also needs approval from the state's preservation panel, the Maryland Historical Trust.

Bailey Pope, senior vice president for design and sustainability planning for the Dawson Co., part of the Lexington Square Partners team, indicated that he was encouraged by the votes Tuesday.

"The action of the commission shows a willingness to support the kind of progress that we are proposing for the neighborhood," he said. "I think it's moving in a positive direction."

The vote came one month after CHAP voted to add the Read's building to a "special list" of city landmarks, an action that protected the 1934 building from demolition for up to six months.

CHAP voted to grant temporary landmark status to the city-owned building on the grounds that it was the site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in by Morgan State college students that had national significance for the U.S. civil rights movement.

The Lexington Square developers had originally planned to raze the Read's building to make way for their project. Plans by Peter Fillat Architects call for 178,000 feet of retail space, 300 apartments, a 120-room hotel and 725 parking spaces.

After preservationists and civil rights advocates objected to the demolition plans, the developers agreed to save the two exterior walls of the old Read's drugstore building and to find other ways to commemorate the sit-in.

The motion to accept the plan came from commissioner Larry Gibson, who said he was persuaded by the calls for CHAP not to hold up construction on the Superblock.

The lone commissioner who did not support the plan to save two walls of the Read's building was Helena Hicks, one of the Morgan students who took part in the 1955 sit-in. She said she did not think saving two walls of the Read's building was a proper way to commemorate the event. "We need a whole building," she said.

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