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CHAP clears away preservation roadblocks to Superblock project

Above: The developer issued this rendering of the restored walls of the corner Read’s Drug Store and surrounding Superblock development.

The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) deferred on Tuesday giving landmark status to buildings on Baltimore’s Superblock” site for a year.

That decision – coupled with the agency’s conceptual approval of the developer’s exterior treatment of the former Read’s Drug Store – removes two major hurdles facing the project.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has mounted a very public campaign calling on CHAP to remove its restrictions on the Read’s property. On Monday, she toured the site with some local ministers and said getting the project underway was vital for the West Side’s economic development and job creation.

Developers Financially Vetted

The development group, led by the Atlanta-based Dawson Co. and including BLDG Management and Crown Acquisitions, has not given a definite timetable for construction, which is not expected to start until later in the year.

CHAP Commissioner Robert C. Embry listens to speakers at yesterday's hearing, with a scale model of Superblock's southeast corner in the foreground. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

CHAP Commissioner Robert C. Embry listens to speakers yesterday, a scale model of Superblock in the foreground. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

M. J. “Jay” Brodie, who negotiated the deal as president of the Baltimore Development Corp., told CHAP that the developers had been fully vetted and possessed the financial capacity to build the large-scale project.

Originally, the developers planned to demolish the Read’s building, site of a 1955 sit-in by Morgan State students protesting segregated lunchrooms in Baltimore. After preservationists and some civil rights activists protested, Rawlings-Blake brokered what she called a compromise plan that retained the building’s two exterior walls.

Preservationists argued that this compromise was, in fact, a violation of a 2001 agreement between city and state officials to preserve the historic buildings bounded by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Ave.

CHAP yesterday accepted the developer’s plan to restore the masonry and ornamentation of the ex-Read’s store. The commission called on the developer to replace the fifth-floor windows in the same configuration as the original building and to match the existing etched glass panels with new thermal panels.

Bailey Pope pledged there would be no demolition on the site by the developer until financing and construction permits are in place. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Bailey Pope spoke on behalf of Dawson Co., the lead developer of the site. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

One Building to Be Fully Preserved

Bailey Pope, a spokesman for Dawson Co., said the developers would rehabilitate only one building in full – the former Brager-Gutman department store at the corner of Lexington and Park.

For buildings such as the historic Pickwick Theatre and cast-iron McCrory Building, as much as possible of the exterior facades will be retained, but inside the properties will be gutted to make way for modern floor plans for retailers.

Nearly all of the buildings along Fayette St. have been designated as “non-contributing” to the historic ambiance and will be torn down.

An official from the Baltimore Development Corp. said the city wants to demolish the ex-Greyhound Bus Terminal on Fayette St. as soon as possible because it attracts homeless people and poses a safety hazard.

Pope pledged that the developers would not demolish any buildings until “we have financing and construction permits in place.” He said all future construction plans would be submitted to the Maryland Historical Trust for review and approval.

Gibson Calls for Landmark Deferral

The motion to defer landmark status for buildings for a year was proposed by CHAP Commissioner Larry Gibson.

Gibson said he did not particularly like the developer’s Superblock plan because it clashed with the city’s own West Side Strategic Plan, and he did not agree with the group’s “big-box-retail” strategy. Nevertheless, he argued that CHAP should approve the plan for procedural and strategic reasons:

Because homeless people are breaking into the former Greyhound Bus Station, the city would like to demolish the terminal building ahead of Superblock construction. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Because homeless people are breaking into the former Greyhound Bus Station, the city would like to demolish the large terminal building ahead of Superblock construction. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Procedurally, because CHAP had deferred its authority to review the project to the Maryland Historical Trust, and thus should step aside at this point, and strategically, because the West Side desperately needs an economic boost.

A number of speakers repeated this point, saying that businesses were struggling because of the deterioration of the Superblock site, and real estate values had dropped.

Helena Hicks, who participated in the 1955 sit-in, was the only CHAP commissioner to vote against the developer’s plans for surface treatment of the Read’s property.

She said the whole building should be preserved as a civil rights landmark.

Civil Rights Educational Center

Former state Senator Julian L. Lapides bristled at the perception that preservationists had delayed and obstructed the project.

“They’re not the obstructionists,” he told the commission. “An agreement was made 10 years ago about how to proceed with historic preservation on the West Side. The preservationists have been putting in the time, been at the table, and if they [the developers] had stuck to the agreement, we would have this project [underway] today.”

Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, past president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, said the developer’s pledge to develop a display to commemorate the sit-in protest Read’s was “an insult and assuredly does not recognize this historic event.”

Cheatham called on the city to establish an “educational civil right center” at the Read’s site where classes and instruction could take place on a regular basis, and said large historic markers should be placed on the walls of the store identifying what happened at the location.

Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, who toured the Read’s site with Rawlings-Blake on Monday, told CHAP he supported the development, but wanted the community to have a chance to develop ideas about how best to commemorate the sit-in.

He said he also planned to host a meeting with ministers, civil rights groups, labor leaders and others to determine how minorities can be included in jobs and other economic opportunities arising from the Superblock project.

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