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Developer files permit to demolish Mechanic Theater

ArchitectureDowntown Partnership of BaltimoreMorris A. Mechanic Theatre

A developer has filed for a permit to demolish theMorris A. Mechanic Theatre, a decades-old venue that has sat unused for eight years in the heart of downtown Baltimore, and replace it with a $150 million-to-$200 million mixed-use development.

OneWest LLC plans to build two 30-story towers containing 600 market-rate apartments, 150,000 square feet of retail space and an underground parking garage on the site at 1 NorthCharles St., the partnership said.

"The market is ripe and the financing is available for apartments," said Howard S. Brown, a partner in OneWest and chairman and president of Owings Mills-based David S. Brown Enterprises Ltd., which is managing the development.

"This is a very key block to resuscitate the central business district," Brown said. "To resuscitate the central business district, the best way to do it is through residential."

Demand is strong for apartment living in downtown Baltimore, which should make financing easier, Brown said. The project could cost up to $200 million, he said, leaving open the possibility of applying for tax incentives.

The proposal needs the approval of the Planning Department's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel, as well as a review by the Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation, Brown said. The process could take as long as six months, he said, but he hoped to move more quickly.

The 45-year-old Mechanic Theatre is included on CHAP's "Special List," said Kathleen G. Kotarba, division chief for historical and architectural preservation. If it disapproves, the issuance of a demolition permit would be postponed for six months, she said.

The theater's redevelopment has been a hot-button issue for several years, with some — including CHAP — seeking to preserve the building. Designed by architect John Johansen, the building, bristling with cubist forms, has been called "brutalist."

Others, including the Downtown Partnership and the Baltimore Planning Commission, have resisted the theater's designation as an official historic landmark and have sought full-scale redevelopment.

The OneWest plan was praised by the Downtown Partnership, which works to promote downtown businesses and residential living.

"There is no overstating the importance of redevelopment at this site," said Kirby Fowler, the partnership's president, in a statement.

For years, developers have sought to reuse the building by creating apartments and retail space while keeping the original structure intact. Earlier plans also included the possibility of a hotel.

But the latest plan put forth by OneWest and Brown Enterprises would flatten the structure and replace it with new construction.

In supporting the demolition of the Mechanic and Brown's project, the Downtown Partnership said that residential occupancy was high in downtown Baltimore, at 97 percent.

The development plan "injects needed apartment space at a time when demand far outstrips supply. It will create a signature retail venue to meet the shopping needs of the most densely populated office and residential district in the region," Fowler said.

Officials with CHAP also did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

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