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Former 'Superblock' parcels re-open for redevelopment

Former 'Superblock' parcens re-open for redevelopment

The so-called Superblock is back on the block.

The Baltimore Development Corp. on Monday said it is looking for investors to purchase and redevelop 27 city-owned properties on the west side of downtown, which were once part of the Superblock — a prominent set of parcels targeted for revitalization that have languished amid years of litigation and other delays.

The announcement came a week after Maryland's Court of Appeals declined to hear another appeal by developer Lexington Square Partners. The group sued the city in 2013 after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would not agree to another extension of the 2007 deal that gave the firm rights to the land.

"We're really excited about this. We've been sitting on 'go' for a while," said Kimberly A. Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which issued the request for proposals Monday.

The 16 buildings and three lots, roughly bounded by Park Avenue and Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets, occupy an important location on the west side, linking downtown to Lexington Market, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the arts district anchored by the Hippodrome and Everyman theaters.

Lexington Square Partners had proposed a $152 million project on the site, with 300 apartments, more than 200,000 square feet of retail and a 650-car parking garage.

But the development stalled after opponents, including Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, sued, saying the plans did not adhere to historical preservation considerations. That lawsuit was dismissed in 2012, and the city approved tax incentives to help the developer secure financing.

In 2013, Rawlings-Blake declined to approve another extension of Lexington Square's land agreement.

The developer, which contended it was making progress and that the city had terminated the agreement improperly, sued for more than $50 million in damages. Two lower courts ruled against Lexington Square, most recently in May, before last week's Court of Appeals ruling.

An attorney for Lexington Square Partners did not respond to requests for comment.

Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that redevelopment of the site is "critical to progress on the west side."

"I have been committed to moving the west side forward, despite others who keep trying to slow the progress; and this offers a real opportunity to build on the momentum," she said.

In the last two years, the city has moved to sell more than a dozen of its holdings in the area to private groups for apartments, a theater incubator and other projects, hoping to spur investment and reduce vacancies.

Last week, the Board of Estimates agreed to the $300,000 sale of city-owned properties for the $17.5 million construction of about 70 so-called workforce apartments, designed to be affordable. Just a few blocks south, developer Howard Brown said he expects to finalize plans for a new apartment tower at 325 W. Baltimore St. in September and hopes to beak ground later this year.

But even as new projects have started, the Superblock site — which spans nearly 2.5 acres — lingered, hampering progress.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit that works to revitalize the city core, said he hopes making the Superblock properties available to new developers will jump-start further progress in the area.

"All the other city-owned properties have a ton of action," he said. "This significant block was the major holdout."

Developers can bid to redevelop the properties singly or as a group, meaning that any new projects are likely to have a different flavor from the original plans, which anticipated larger-scale construction and big-box retail — one reason for the "Superblock" nickname.

The properties include the former Read's drugstore where Morgan State University students held a sit-in that led to desegregation of the chain, as well as a lot that was once the Greyhound bus station.

Clark said she expects to see proposals that continue the pattern of renovating upper floors for apartments and renting to commercial tenants on the street, which they have seen work for other projects in the area.

BDC is hoping to get lots of interest for the former Superblock parcels, some of which are quite large. Proposals are due in January.

"We want to get developers that are interested in moving forward, not sitting on properties," she said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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