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CHAP declares five “Superblock” buildings that developers want to demolish historic

It’s a victory for preservationists, but Westside Partners will have another chance to come back before the preservation panel to argue economic hardship

Above: CHAP’s Stacy Montgomery shows commissioners buildings on West Fayette Street that the staff said contribute to the area’s historic and cultural fabric. (Fern Shen)

The companies given rights to redevelop the Westside shopping district suffered a setback today, as Baltimore’s preservation panel declared that five of the seven buildings they wanted to demolish are historic and should be preserved.

The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted unanimously to follow a staff recommendation against demolition, finding that 220, 222 and 224 West Fayette Street and 105 and 107 North Howard Street contribute to the historic and cultural fabric of the retail district.

CHAP was considering a demolition request for those properties as well as 226 West Fayette Street and 101 North Howard Street.

Addressing the commissioners, staffer Stacey Montgomery ran through various unique features of the buildings: dental cornices, Palladian windows and other architectural elements of note.

Pointing out that 105 and 107 North Howard Street were probably built in the 1870s,  she described windows that were “double-hung wood with decorative lintels with cast-iron shells in the middle and a stone sill.”

“These buildings represent mid to late 19th century rowhouses and commercial buildings in Federal and Italianate styles,” Montgomery said. “They represent early buildings in the district that were not purpose-built as commercial buildings, but were adapted to 20th century uses by the introduction of plate glass at the turn of the century.”

One of the westside Baltimore properties targeted for demolition, the former Bickford's cafeteria at 105 North Howard Street. (Fern Shen)

One of the properties targeted for demolition but deemed architecturally and culturally significant – the former Bickford’s cafeteria at 105 North Howard Street. (Fern Shen)

“The numbers don’t work”

Speaking for the development group was one of its partners, Jayson Williams, of Mayson-Dixon, who said they will preserve other structures as part of their project, but not these due to “fiscal constraints” and “the condition of the buildings.”

“We’re asking you to give us permission to demolish them so that we can move our project forward, create density, create a lasting impact and truly tell the story of Howard and Lexington Street,” Williams said.

In 2020, the Jack Young administration gave Mayson Dixon, as well as Baltimore-based Vitruvius, exclusive rights to develop the area, dubbed the “Superblock.”

“The floorplans are not really meant for modern retail or efficient uses”  – Chris Janian, Vitruvius Partners.

Today’s vote on whether the seven structures had historical and cultural significance was only a part of CHAP’s consideration of the demolition request.

At a second hearing, the developers will have a chance to make the case for demolition based on structural and economic considerations.

Speaking after today’s hearing, Christopher Janian, of Vitruvius, said the partners will return to explain why it is too costly to preserve the Howard and Fayette street structures on the south end of the Superblock.

“The floorplans are not really meant for modern retail or efficient uses right now,” he said. “There are very few tenants that anybody can find who can inhabit one of those buildings and pay rent, especially with the state that they’re in.”

Converting them to office uses, he continued, may not be advisable because of “the challenging office environment we are in” and because converting to residential “is incredibly expensive with a historic building. The numbers don’t work.”

“I love the historic buildings we are saving – everything on the north block,” Janian continued.

As for the buildings on the south side: “The only plan that we have going forward is not including them.”

Vitruvius' Chris Janian (center) and Jayson Williams, of Mayson-Dixon, (right), listen to testimony at at the CHAP hearing. (Fern Shen)

Vitruvius’ Chris Janian (center) and Mayson-Dixon’s Jayson Williams (right) listen to testimony at the CHAP hearing. (Fern Shen)

“Irreplaceable Structures”

Speaking in support of the staff recommendation was Baltimore Heritage Executive Director Johns Hopkins.

“They are all from the period of significance – from 1830 to 1968,” he said. “They show the retail history of Baltimore” and are “an eclectic mix of 19th and 20th century commercial architecture.”

CHAP also received letters expressing support for preserving all of the buildings from Chris Hyde of Mount Vernon and from UMBC professor Nicole King.

“These are irreplaceable historic structures that give Baltimore City its architectural character and charm,” wrote King, who has lived on the west side of downtown for more than 12 years. “This is one of my favorite parts of the city because of its history, architecture and potential.”

Superblock properties on North Howard Street targeted by developers for demolition. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Two Superblock properties on North Howard Street (the two in the center, with the red-brick and the yellowish facades) were saved for now by today’s CHAP vote. BELOW: This tall building on West Fayette Street – singled out for its windows and other distinctive features – was protected. (Fern Shen)

One of the buildings on Fayette street targeted by a developer for demolition. (Fern Shen)

King pointed to other examples of successful adaptive re-use in the neighborhood, including the $10 million restoration of the old Pollack’s furniture showroom by New York developer Alan Bell.

She called for “a model of downtown development that is more connected to existing local communities by respecting the modest scale and historic fiber of independent business owners and the city they inhabit.”

“The huge delays associated with this project have resulted from lack of vision and mismanagement of the city and outside developers,” King said.

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