An informational meeting held Thursday for Baltimore officials to review the initial design of a mixed-use development planned for the site of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre ended with impassioned comments about the proposed demolition of the architecturally significant building.
"You people are being manipulated," Baltimore land-use attorney John C. Murphy told the city Planning Department's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel.
Murphy and others in the audience at the public meeting, which had no binding outcome, said the architecture review panel should delay discussion of the plans until a decision is made on whether the theater at Baltimore and Charles streets should be allowed to stand.
"This is a world-class building," Murphy said of the Mechanic, designed by architect John Johansen in the "Brutalist" style and built more than four decades ago.
The presentation of preliminary drawings for One West Baltimore Street by Owings Mills-based developer David S. Brown Enterprises Ltd. and the Washington architecture firm Shalom Baranes Associates dredged up strong feelings about the value of the building, which has sat unused for eight years.
Since the theater closed, development proposals have been put forth that would have retained the Mechanic's cast-concrete shell. However, the current plan, which calls for two residential towers to be built atop three stories of retail space and five levels of underground parking, would raze the Mechanic. One tower would stand about 30 stories and the other 24.
No final decisions have been made about the buildings' exterior appearance, architect Shalom Baranes told the panel.
The plans are intended to ease pedestrian access to Hopkins Plaza, Baranes said. A vehicle ramp along the west side of Charles Street would be removed, and the architects are considering moving the entrances to the Charles Center Metro station from the sidewalk to the building's interior.
"What a refreshing change this will be," Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership and a longtime supporter of redeveloping the Mechanic site, told the panel. "This is the right building for the corner. We need the retail. We need the residences."
The plans were received warmly by the panel, though several members raised concerns about the amount of retail included in the design, given the amount of empty retail space in the Pratt Street corridor.
Howard S. Brown, chairman and president of One West Baltimore Street's developer, said he was not concerned about finding tenants. "Multilevel, urban retail is the strongest thing in the country right now" when it comes to urban revitalization, he said.
In May, Brown Enterprises applied for a permit to demolish the theater. Another division of the Planning Department, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, will hold a hearing Aug. 14 to discuss the demolition application, said Kathleen Kotarba, the commission's executive director.
The Mechanic Theatre is on CHAP's "special list," allowing the preservation commission to delay the issuance of a demolition permit by six months while alternatives are sought.
One of the few moves that could save the Mechanic would be City Council approval of landmark designation for the theater, but neither side thinks that is likely.
The preservation commission suggested five years ago that the theater be listed as a landmark, but the proposal did not make it through the Planning Commission. In 2008, the commission voted unanimously against granting the Mechanic landmark status.
Brown said he was confident that landmark designation would not be granted.
"There's no use for the building," he said. "It'll sit there and decay."