Baltimore’s preservation commission voted 5-3 this afternoon not to allow the demolition of Eddie’s supermarket and the former Eager House restaurant, saying the buildings contribute to the historical and architectural character of Mount Vernon.
The panel is expected to hold a future hearing to determine whether today’s decision poses an economic hardship on the proposed developer of the block, Dennis Richter. (Full story tomorrow.)
Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood would lose its only grocery store, and a neighborhood institution, if the city approves an application to demolish Eddie’s of Mount Vernon.
The grocery store at 7-11 West Eager Street, which employs 30 to 40 people, is part of an assemblage of real estate that a group headed by local developer Dennis Richter wants to clear to make way for a mixed-use development containing commercial space at street level and residences above.
Richter’s group, 13 West Eager LLC, is also seeking to tear down the former Eager House Restaurant building at 13-15 West Eager Street, a rear addition to 917 Cathedral Street that is connected to the Eager House, and the former Comprehensive Car Care building at the southeast corner of Cathedral and Eager streets, according to city planners and others.
Richter also controls the “Lipman Lot,” a large surface parking lot in the middle of the block bounded by Cathedral, Read, Charles and Eager streets. That gives him one of the largest development sites in Mount Vernon, with frontage on both Eager and Cathedral Streets.
Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) is scheduled to consider a request to demolish Eddie’s grocery store and the former Eager House at a meeting today at 1 p.m. at 417 East Fayette Street.
The hearing is required because the Eager Street buildings are part of the Mount Vernon historic district, and any changes to buildings in a historic district need city approval.
At today’s meeting, CHAP is expected to limit its deliberations to the historical and architectural significance of the buildings at 7 to 15 West Eager Street, not the scope of the larger replacement project.
Mechanics of Hearing
If CHAP agrees to the demolition request, the developer would be asked to present plans at a follow-up meeting for a replacement building before any construction could begin.
If CHAP turns down the demolition request, the developer can seek another hearing to make its case for demolition due to economic hardship or market conditions.
The Eddie’s property has been a grocery store since 1939. Before it was Eddie’s, it was an Acme. The store was constructed within the shell of an old stable.
Ziger Snead Architects, a design firm with offices half a block from the assembled parcel, has been working on plans for a replacement structure. Caroline Hecker, of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, is the developer’s attorney.
Richter originally sought demolition approval last year, but asked that a hearing be postponed.
He has acknowledged his role in the development, which would be privately funded, but has not made public any designs or provided details about costs or a construction timetable.
Richter could not be reached for comment yesterday.
In an interview last fall, he indicated that the development he envisions would be a mid-rise structure, with a main entrance at the corner of Cathedral and Eager streets. Others say a new grocery store may be one of the commercial tenants in the development.
The Eddie’s property has been a grocery store since 1939. Before it was Eddie’s, it was an Acme. The store was constructed within the shell of an old stable, Coffay’s Livery, that dates from the mid 1800s and later became a garage.
With a footprint of about 5,000 square feet, the Mount Vernon Eddie’s is smaller than the urban grocery stores that are being constructed these days by chains such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s.
The next closest grocery stores are Streets Market and Café in Charles Center and the Save-A-Lots in Bolton Hill and Station North.
Dennis Zorn, the owner of Eddie’s store but not the real estate, could not be reached. An employee at the store said Zorn was out of town on vacation. She said the family plans to have a representative at the CHAP hearing to find out what the commission decides about the building.
The Eager House property has been vacant for the past several years and dates from the mid-1800s. For many years it was a popular white tablecloth restaurant, competitive with Danny’s, the Chesapeake Restaurant and other Charles Street corridor restaurants before Harborplace opened in 1980. After it closed, the building had a number of uses, including a lunchtime strip club called Fabulous Follies, Paloma’s night club and Eden’s Lounge.
The townhouse at 917 Cathedral Street dates from the 1860s. The development team is not seeking to raze the original portions of 917 Cathedral Street, but does want to take down a 20th century structure that connects it with the former Eager House.
The Comprehensive Car Care property closed in 2015 and would be the subject of another hearing. It was built as a gas station and is notable for the curving Art Deco facade.
Richter’s application comes at a time when urban planners are touting the redevelopment of smaller scaled buildings in cities, rather than mega projects that take up much of a block, as the best way to activate streets. They say buildings such as Eddie’s and Eager House add a certain variety and “granularity” that help make cities walkable and visually interesting.
Contradicting CHAP’s own Guidelines?
To local preservationists, Richter’s application is controversial because Eddie’s and the Eager House are included on a list of Mount Vernon properties that CHAP determined contribute to the historic district and should not be demolished.
If CHAP approves the Eager Street demolitions, the preservationists say, it would be contradicting its own guidelines.
A supporter says Richter’s development, which has not been publicly disclosed, could be the most transformative project in Mount Vernon in 60 years.
Preservationists say the buildings are significant because they aren’t the high style residences and commercial buildings people see on Charles and Cathedral streets, but more “vernacular” buildings that house businesses that serve the residents of Mount Vernon.
“This block of Eager Street is one of the most commercially viable, thus one of the most heavily peopled areas in all of Mount Vernon,” then-planning assistant William Pencek wrote in a 1975 survey for the Maryland Historical Trust.
“Although the alterations which have been made to the buildings have not been in keeping with the styling of the original structures, the buildings retain a scale and a picturesque-commercial ambience which contribute to the wide popular appeal of the immediate area,” Pencek wrote.
“The converted shop fronts of the oldest buildings contrasted with the Deco lines of 1-5 West Eager make an interesting document of popular taste in the mid-20th century.”
Improvement Association Backs Demolition
But others say they welcome plans to redevelop the block, even if that means demolishing Eddie’s and the Eager House.
Mount Vernon’s Architectural Review Committee, part of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Improvement Association, sent a letter via email to CHAP saying that it generally supports preservation of historic structures, but in this case it supports the razing request because it would pave the way for a larger development that will help revitalize the area.
Steve Shen, chairman of the review committee, wrote that the committee believes the proposed development “will likely be the most beneficially transformative development for Mount Vernon in the past 60 years.”
Owners of The City Café on the same block as the Eager House, Gino Cardinale and Bruce Bodie, also support the demolition plan.
“The old Eager House properties and Eddie’s are simply obsolete commercial structures that endured well past their prime (circa 1960) because business owners signed leases and paid rents,” they said in a posting on Facebook.
“As recent history demonstrates, that ship has sailed and all we are left with is the mostly vacant buildings bordering on blight. It is time to redevelop this vitally important land into something that our neighborhood and can be proud of and lease it to a new generation of entrepreneurs that will meet the needs of today’s Mt. Vernon community.”