With new bids, a 'superblock' no more

With new bids on west downtown site, a 'superblock' no more

It's a "superblock" no longer.

Four groups, including the Everyman Theatre, are seeking to purchase bits and pieces of a site on the west side of downtown, once dubbed the "Superblock" for its size and the hopes for its redevelopment.

But no one jumped at the chance to redevelop the entire city-owned parcel, which sits at a critical location linking downtown to Lexington Market, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the arts district anchored by the Hippodrome and Everyman theaters.

The Baltimore Development Corp. reopened the site to developers last year after the end of a long-standing agreement with the former developer, Lexington Square Partners, which had proposed a $152 million project with 300 apartments, more than 200,000 square feet of retail and a 650-car parking garage.

The board reviewed one of the four responses Thursday at its monthly meeting, recommending that the city move forward with negotiations with Everyman Theatre, which has proposed buying the former Howard Furniture building at 109-111 N. Howard St. for $1.

The theater company, which is located nearby and did not respond to a request for comment, wants to renovate the building and turn it into a rehearsal hall, classroom space and costume shop, with eight apartments for visiting cast members, BDC said.

Everyman would work with Cross Street Partners and architecture firm Cho Benn Holback on the project. The size of the investment was not disclosed.

BDC board members said the $1 purchase price makes sense, despite the building's appraised value of $415,000, because the property is badly deteriorated and has become a financial drain on the city. They recommended that any agreement have provisions setting deadlines for the theater to raise money for the project, which it says it hopes to start in May 2018.

But former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who sits on the board, asked why the city has not razed the buildings on the site, saying more developers would have been interested if offered a blank slate.

"You kind of scratch your head," said Schmoke, who championed an urban renewal plan while mayor that condemned 110 properties in the area — many of which still are owned by the city. "It seems at some point there ought to be a way to balance all these interests, the historic interests as well as the economic interests of the city."

The two-block former "superblock" site, roughly bounded by Park Avenue and Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets, contains three lots and 16 buildings, many of them protected as historic under a 2001 agreement. The previous proposal met with opposition from preservationists.

Under Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the city has tried to turn properties in the area over to developers, approving agreements for less-ambitious projects than had once been envisioned.

Kimberly Clark, the BDC's executive vice president, said she was pleased with the responses to the request for proposal, noting that the Everyman proposal fits with the area's designation as an arts district. The BDC is still reviewing proposals for other parts of the site.

"They're great responses on buildings that people have ignored for a long time," she said.

The BDC board also recommended that the city continue negotiations with Legsom 400 LLC over the purchase price for five properties at 407-415 N. Howard St. That firm has proposed buying the buildings for $50,000 and renovating them, adding retail space and 32 market-rate rental units.

The properties had an appraised value of $610,000 and may be eligible for historic tax credits.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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