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News Opinion Editorial

Back to the drawing board for the Superblock

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's announcement this week that she won't grant developers of the long-stalled Superblock another extension of their exclusive right to build on the property acknowledged a painful truth that has been apparent for some time: Nearly a decade after the first proposals were submitted, the massive redevelopment project that was supposed to transform the west side of downtown is dead in the water and unlikely to be revived any time soon, if ever. The city is right to cut its losses now, get back to the drawing board and come up with a more workable plan for revitalizing the area.

It's clear the developers the city has been working with, Lexington Square Partners LLC, aren't up to the task of bringing this project to fruition. In 2007, the company presented the city with an ambitious proposal that looked great on paper: A total makeover of a dilapidated 3.6-acre parcel of downtown bounded by Park Avenue and Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets that would create a $152 million mixed-use development of 300 apartments, a parking structure for 650 cars and 200,000 square feet of street-level retail space.

The developers agreed to pay $12.2 million for the land and buildings, with all but $2.85 million of that amount offset by city tax credits. They also pledged to retain much of the area's historic architecture in the construction plan, including the facade of the old Read's Drug Store, the site of one of the country's earliest civil rights sit-ins in 1955. The idea was that the project's amenities and the synergy created by their interaction with other west side redevelopment efforts would create a critical mass for attracting new residents and businesses to the area.

But the project ran into trouble almost immediately, stemming both from a series of legal challenges and the weak economy following the 2008 recession. We sympathize with the developers in their frustration over attorney Peter G. Angelos' efforts to stall the project for reasons only he can explain, but even after their victory in court and an additional $22.1 million in tax breaks the City Council authorized in December, they have been unable to move forward.

The city has granted no fewer than four extensions of the land-use agreement that gave the company exclusive rights to develop the parcel. The most recent, granted in December after the developers vowed it would be the last of such requests, expires at the end of the month, and they're still no closer to breaking ground on the site. No wonder the mayor says she's done.

It's clear the city can't afford to risk another indefinite delay that may still end up leaving the project as up in the air as it is today. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has made west side redevelopment a priority in her push to grow the city's population by 10,000 families over the next decade, but given that the Superblock was supposed to be one of the centerpieces of that effort, she's got precious little to show for it. It's time to try something different.

One place the city might start is by re-examining the assumptions on which it based its initial concept for rebuilding the Superblock. The original idea was that the best route that of a large-scale unified project carried out by a single developer. But maybe the effort could be better managed as a series of separate projects distributed among several smaller firms. Those firms wouldn't be able to finance the entire $152 million cost of the construction, but if given similar opportunities to get city breaks, they might be able to qualify for bank financing on a smaller scale. After a decade of trying to do everything at once, it may be that the only way the city is going to get what it wants for the Superblock in a reasonable time frame is to start all over on a more modest scale that has a better chance of actually becoming reality.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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