As confirmed by a recent report of the Urban Land Institute, the historic and architectural significance and integrity of Baltimore City's West Side is its greatest asset and key to successful and sustainable revitalization. A preservation-based revitalization plan was debated and adopted in 2001 through the West Side Memorandum of Agreement between the city and the Maryland Historical Trust, and the city's own Strategic and Urban Renewal Plans for the area. The plan provided a framework for creating a vibrant mixed-use historic district based on the successes of similar downtown neighborhoods in Manhattan and Denver.
The plan — a compromise among opposing interests — balanced preservation requirements with opportunities for new development for the 24-block area. The most obvious example of compromise is the large vacant lot on the north side of the 200 block of W. Lexington St., where several historic buildings were demolished to accommodate substantial new infill development. We share the frustration over the pace and extent of the revitalization, most notably the redevelopment parcel referred to as the "Superblock" However, it is primarily a result of years of mismanagement by the city abetted by the developer's contempt for the requirements of the project.
Ten years ago, West Lexington Street was one of the busiest retail districts in Baltimore. However, after being targeted for redevelopment and subsequently condemned and acquired by the city, it is now virtually abandoned. During the same period, the Hippodrome Theatre, former Hecht Company, Stewart's Department Store, Abell Buildings, and the entire Centerpoint project have been successfully redeveloped following the city's established development and preservation requirements for the West Side.
Unfortunately, the only "progress" on the Superblock has been the departure of local businesses and resulting deterioration of the vacant buildings. Councilman William H. Cole IV expressed these same concerns back in 2009 when he wrote the Baltimore Development Corporation requesting that they find a new developer willing and able to develop the Superblock per the city's requirements. The seven years of inaction by the developer since being selected in 2003 by BDC cannot just be blamed on a lawsuit that challenged the city's condemnation and subsequent award of the development parcel, which neither sought nor was granted a preliminary or permanent injunction.
Why should the Baltimore Development Corporation and its selected developer Lexington Square Partners not comply with the established development requirements for the site? The Maryland Historical Trust Board of Trustees has determined that the LSP proposal does not comply with the memorandum of understanding and attempted to rescind the unauthorized and improper conditional "approval" by its director. Based on these established requirements, priority should continue to be the preservation of the contiguous historic buildings in the intact blocks along Lexington and Howard streets. They are all distinctive and substantial buildings that can be viably rehabilitated for a variety of retail uses if the developer and its architect are really interested in doing so. Tellingly, it was only after Mayor Rawlings-Blake's intervention to preserve the facades of the former Read's Drug Store that LSP announced that it would bring a "historic preservation expert" onto their design team.
Everyone wants to see the West Side succeed and for it to reach its true potential as one of America's great downtown mixed-use historic districts capitalizing on the adjacent University of Maryland and Medical System Campuses, Downtown Business District, Camden Yards, and Convention Center. As the ULI Panel pointed out, the historic buildings in the Superblock would be the envy of any major city and their demolition a tragic lost opportunity. We support the ULI's recommendation that the mayor partner with the thriving University of Maryland Baltimore and make revitalizing the West Side Baltimore's leading economic development initiative.
We also support the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation's efforts to step in and preserve the former Read's Drug Store, site of a 1955 sit-in for civil rights, and other historic buildings in the Superblock. It is past time for BDC and LSP to conform to the same preservation and development requirements as the many other property owners have successfully completed their projects and fulfill the true potential of the West Side.
Tyler Gearhart is executive director of Preservation Maryland. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.