The Rawlings-Blake administration is promising to install a temporary roof over the Read’s Drug Store by April – an extremely quick turnaround for the city, but not fast enough for critics who demonstrated outside of the building today.
The site of one of the nation’s first civil rights sit-ins, the Read’s building was slated for demolition last year until protests pressured Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to broker a deal to keep the building’s exterior walls intact.
The Brew detailed last month the poor condition of the building, whose roof has collapsed and inside floors have rotted from extensive water damage. The city has insisted the building does not pose a safety hazard because its brick walls and steel framing are sound.
Rev. Cortly C.D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the administration’s pledge to stabilize the building within 10 weeks was unsatisfactory.
“The city was aware of the fragile condition of this building for a long time,” he told a crowd of about 40 protesters. “We believe this is demolition by neglect, and the city of Baltimore should be held accountable.”
Sharon Black, of the Occupy4Jobs Network, pointed to the building’s upper windows, some of them wide open to the elements. What homeowner would keep their house in such a condition, she asked.
Last week, the city received seven bids to install a temporary roof and stabilize the building. A low bid of $349,000 by J.A. Argetakis Contracting was substantially below the city’s original estimate of $550,000 for the job.
Other bids ranged from $394,450 (Bob Andrews Construction) to $547,800 (P&J Contracting).
The contract calls for gutting the interior of the building down to its steel beams and placing reinforcing steel bars on the four corners for stabilization.
A temporary wood roof, pitched on an angle, would direct rainwater to a gutter and downspout installed on the Howard Street side of the building. New plywood boards would be installed over the ground-floor windows and an entry door.
Responding to Criticism
The city has “fast tracked” the project following criticism from members of CHAP (Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation) and several civil rights activists. In December, CHAP commissioner Larry Gibson called the current state of the building “an absolute, complete case of demolition by neglect.”
Helena Hicks, another CHAP commissioner who participated in the 1955 Read’s sit-in as a Morgan State student, said she was told last week that the project will go before the Board of Estimates quickly.
“They’re moving very, very fast after not moving at all for years,” Hicks said in an interview Friday.
Hicks is pushing for the full restoration of the building – “against the mayor’s wishes” – and has been planning with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference a suitable memorial to the sit-in.
Rawlings-Blake appointed her own committee to develop a commemoration plan that excluded Hicks and other activists. The committee’s report was delivered to the mayor’s office in December, but has not been publicly released.
Witherspoon today criticized the city administration’s failure to recognize the building’s historic significance as well as its alleged favoritism to developer interests.
“This is not just about Read’s. This is about big business taking away our history and taking away our small African-American businesses,” Witherspoon said.
Read’s is part of the “Superblock” redevelopment project, encompassing a full block of west Baltimore bounded by Howard, Lexington, Park and Fayette streets.
Four New York real-estate developers, known collectively as Lexington Square Partners, and a Atlanta developer were granted exclusive rights in 2007 to develop the block for national retail stores, an apartment high-rise and a possible luxury hotel.
The project has long been stalled by lawsuits and by preservation groups who argue the developers are in violation of a 2001 agreement with the Maryland Historical Trust.
The city has extended its contract with Lexington Square Partners three times, the latest extension to end on April 30.
“We want to send an awakening call to the Mayor and the City Council President and City Council that this is essentially a national treasure,” Witherspoon said. “We need to get their heads out of the clouds.”
Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, former president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, noted the number of civil rights leaders that came from Baltimore.
“This city is second to none in civil rights. We need a civil rights museum. We need a civil rights building. This building should be it,” he told the crowd.