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Commentaryby Fern Shen7:00 amJan 11, 20110

Drama at Baltimore’s Superblock: a building’s new pedigree, an official’s shifting stance

After a half-century, sit-down strike to desegregate Read’s still having powerful effect on Baltimore

Above: A recent photo of the former Read’s Drugstore building in Baltimore, site of the 1955 “sit-down” action.

The lost-and-and found history of Read’s drug store may have saved it from the wrecking ball for the moment, but several  ripe questions remain, after a design panel last week rejected a $150 million redevelopment plan that would have meant demolishing the building, on downtown Baltimore’s West Side.

A preservation-world bombshell had fallen Thursday afternoon: it turned out the store had been the site of a successful Civil-Rights era lunch counter protest in 1955 that was a precursor to the world-famous Greensboro N.C. action at F.W. Woolworth’s in 1960.

It was a seemingly-unheard-of 56-year-old story, emerging just days before this crucial meeting, in which the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel would possibly approve the latest set of plans for the massive Lexington Square mixed-use project in the so-called “Superblock.”

Strangely, no one involved in decades of wrangling over the area – a passel of architects, developers, lawyers, planners, politicians, members of the Baltimore Development Corporation, even preservationists – seemed to know that the vacant building at the corner of Howard and Lexington streets had such a powerful  preservation pedigree. How could this be?

Another question, that somehow escaped the headlines but rippled around the room, was how the Maryland Historical Trust had seemingly flip-flopped, suddenly supporting a plan long deemed unacceptable by preservationists because it didn’t adequately preserve the historic nature of the area, and demolished too many significant buildings.

“Inexplicable!” Ronald Kreitner, executive director of West Side Renaissance Inc., pronounced a Dec. 22 letter by Trust director J. Rodney Little, in a succinct and scorching commentary delivered at Thursday’s meeting.

“This about-face . . . came out of left field,” Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, had said before the meeting.

In a phone interview with The Brew Friday, Little discussed the letter that seemed to many to have a contradictory message and which effectively green-lighted a project preservationists have been opposing for years, through at least five iterations.

Detail from the McCrory's building, also on the Superblock. (Photo by Elizabeth Suman.)

Deco detail from the McCrory building, also in the Superblock. (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

The latest plan still had problems — and not just with the Read’s building — which Little acknowledged in his letter:

“The current proposal will have substantial adverse effects on historic resources,” Little wrote, noting that the project as currently laid out means demolishing 14 of the 17 buildings designated for preservation consideration under the MoA.” (That’s the Memorandum of Agreement that Brodie and then-mayor Martin O’Malley signed in 2001.)

Little himself had been part of the preservation community’s resistance to the Lexington Square proposals, writing to BDC chief M. J. “Jay” Brodie in 2009 to complain that the latest plans did not even meet the minimum requirements of the MoA.

But toward the end of this recent letter, Little declared that his office “is prepared to approve the proposed design.”

How, he was asked Friday, could he take a position so at odds with the MoA?

“The MoA is punctuated throughout with caveats about economic and technical feasibility,” he said.

“If this development is the one that’s going to occur, and both the developer and the BDC say this particular retail strategy is the only one that will work at this site, then the question is what is the maximum preservation that can occur in that development,” he said.

Asked if the proposal conflicts with the Memorandum of Agreement, he said: “it does not conform to the letter of the MoA.”

Ground zero for preservation

The once-bustling West Side, now a gloomy patchwork of vacant buildings and small businesses, has been a preservationist v. developer battleground for years. A particular source of civic heartburn there has been the long-stalled, city-owned Superblock, a mega-parcel, bordered by Park Avenue and Fayette, Lexington and Howard streets.

Just last month, a group brought in by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (the DC-based Urban Land Institute) walked the neighborhood, reviewed documents and offered a number of prescriptions for the ailing West Side — including switching developers, if the current group can’t comply with agreed-upon preservation requirements.

Architect's drawing of Lexington Square project. (pfarc.com)

Architect's drawing of Lexington Square project. (pfarc.com)

But city officials believe that the group and its Superblock plan represent the best Baltimore can hope for in a down economy. Recently, the city’s Board of Estimates granted a six-month extension to their agreement with Lexington Square Partners.

Lexington Square would be “an economic engine” for a blighted area of the city and give residents a wide array of new shopping choices, said architect Bailey T. Pope, local development partner along with Atlanta-based Dawson Co.

Pope said he only learned about the Read’s history days earlier.

He said their current plan call for office space, 179,000 square feet of retail, 300 residential units and a 725-space garage. A 120-room boutique hotel is also planned for the block. As for the old Read’s building, it would be replaced by a similar-sized retail structure.

The plan would save all or parts of six buildings considered architecturally significant and raze another six buildings, including the Read’s store, to make space for new construction.

In his presentation, Pope explained that the medallions on the Read’s building (showing historic Maryland icons such as a masted sailing ship) would be preserved on the new building, along with an original flagpole.

Brodie reiterated the BDC’s support for the project Thursday, noting that he also had only just recently heard about the Read’s protest history. He said he took concern about the history of the Read’s seriously– “I consider the struggle for civil rights, which is not over, to be the defining issue of my lifetime” — but signaled that it might be possible to honor it and still raze the structure.

“We see it as a matter of events and people that need to be preserved. . . . oftentimes the sites do not continue” he said, mentioning the possibility of plaques or other markers.

Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler echoed Brodie’s message and offered $100,000 “to create some real commemoration of what happened” at Read’s.

Asked why the Read’s building couldn’t be saved, the developers said that mold, dilapidation, low ceilings and other structural problems with the 76-year-old structure make rehabbing it uneconomical for their intended purpose: leasing to “junior-box” retail stores such as TJ Maxx or Forever 21.

“There’s a size of space that’s not available there” in existing buildings, said Baltimore architect Peter Fillat, who worked on the design. Fillat said he went to the building recently and could find no traces of the lunch counter.

“We went there. I’m still alive. It’s a very dilapidated interior,” he said. “There is no trace of the lunch counter. There is no trace of where the lunch counter would be.”  Pope concurred: “The walls are literally falling in.”

University of Maryland law professor Larry S. Gibson at the UDARP meeting.

University of Maryland law professor Larry S. Gibson at the UDARP meeting. (Photo by Fern Shen)

But several people, including David T. Terry, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History, spoke passionately about the Read’s and said the project had to be halted until its history could be studied further.

“It’s clear that they didn’t do their homework… When you tell me you’re going to give me a lollipop and let me go home, it’s just not enough,” said Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, former president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. “You can’t expect to put up some signs and stuff and expect us to go away.”

One panelist, Gary A. Bowden, agreed that the sit-in history was not well recognized in the developers’ plan but also noted that he wasn’t a huge fan of what he called “a 1950s building.”

“I’m not convinced, architecturally, that building is worth saving,” Bowden said.

The Pickwick Theatre, on Baltimore's Superblock, as it looks today.

The old Pickwick Theatre, after development, would be a parking garage entrance. (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

Panelists critiqued other features of the project, including the decision to preserve only parts of other buildings and the fact that the only displays commemorating the area’s past were going to be in the lobby of the tiny Pickwick Theatre, which would serve as access to the parking garage elevators.

But it was the Read’s demolition that drew the most fiery opposition from a UDARP member.

“It doesn’t matter if this is the most beautiful building or the ugliest building,” said panelist Emily Eig, cautioning that preservationists have had a bias toward Victorian-era buildings and don’t yet understand those constructed in the last 50 years.

Proceeding without exploring the story more fully, she said, “would be irresponsible, it would be reprehensible, to the city  and to the African-Americans of this country.” She asked for the development plan to be suspended “so we are not complicit in the demolition of a building that we find out tomorrow is really important.”  The room erupted into applause.

Who knew!?

As it turns out, of course, the Reads story  is “known.”

University of Maryland law school professor Larry S. Gibson, who has been researching the history of the event for years, told the audience that it may lead to some rewriting of Civil Rights history.

“The sit-in movement begins in Baltimore. It begins with Morgan and these students…. It begins with this Read’s Drug Store,” he said. “Which happens to be a national treasure.”

 Emily Eig warned that he new information about Read's may be

Emily Eig warned that the new information about Read's could be 'the tip of the iceberg.' (Photo by Fern Shen)

One reason the story is not more widely known is that The Baltimore Sun and other establishment media at the time never covered it, he said, pulling out copies of two stories about it from The AfroAmerican newspaper.

Speaking to The Brew after the meeting, Gibson said his first public speech about the Read’s “sit-down” action was on Nov.  9, 2004 – a talk at the University of Maryland Law School’, during a symposium for the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. He told the tale again, on Feb. 17, 2005, in a speech at a bar association event honoring Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

So why didn’t he – or anyone else speak up sooner?

Partly, he said, it’s because the project was moving so suddenly through the pipeline: “No one thought you’d tear down this building  . . . . This is all quite a surprise.”

He also said that he and other local preservationists “fell asleep at the wheel” by failing to push the Read’s protest story in front of Superblock planners. Baltimore Heritage director Johns Hopkins said he has been talking about the Read’s protest for a year but was not getting much reaction, in part because, with a seemingly stalled plan, there wasn’t any sense of urgency.

Some suggested that elitism and racial insensitivity was at play.

“Why didn’t they ask us?” said Arlene Fisher, a member of the Baltimore Heritage Board who told the UDARP members she was banned from Read’s Drugs when she was a youngster because of her race.

Read’s was not included, for instance, in the 1980 survey of the Superblock building prepared by the Baltimore Committee for Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), whose representatives in the room were becoming visibly upset by some of the insinuations.

“I wonder where the gap occurred?” said UDARP member Gary A. Bowden. “My challenge to the preservation community is: ‘Are we only getting the stories of rich peoples’ houses?”

It was pretty much the note on which the meeting ended.

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