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Parking garage dispute holds up work on Mechanic theater site

Parking garage dispute holds up work on Mechanic theater site
The razing of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre has left a large hole south of the first block of W. Baltimore St., at the corner of Charles Street. The redevelopment of the theater site has been stalled by a long-running lawsuit with the DownUnder parking garage. The Charles Center subway is at left. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Crews started to rip up the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre more than two years ago, taking down the hulking concrete building in anticipation of two soaring apartment towers supporters said would strengthen downtown's renaissance.

Instead, amid a legal dispute over access to the entrance to an underground parking garage, the site has become an unsightly pit filled with construction rubble and trash.

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As demolition started, the owner of the nearby DownUnder Garage sued, saying the project would improperly cause it to lose its Charles Street entrance. The firm lost and appealed.

Maryland's Special Court of Appeals in Annapolis heard the case in early May. A decision is pending.

"We've just been waiting," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which is charged with spurring revitalization in downtown and backed the developer's plans. "We hope there's resolution quickly and the project can move forward."

Meanwhile, the site of the Mechanic at Charles and Baltimore streets — the heart of downtown — remains a gaping hole in the ground that some call an even bigger eyesore than the blocky theater.

"The building was neglected, but now it's just really dreadful," said Karl Aumann, 56, who works for the state in a nearby office building that overlooks the pit. "It's really a scar on the downtown central business district."

The property in question has been a focus of Baltimore's aspirations for more than 50 years. The theater was part of the city's Charles Center redevelopment in the 1960s, which aimed to spur revitalization in the declining business district.

The theater became home to touring Broadway shows, but by the 1990s many considered the building both ugly and small. It closed in 2004.

After Owings Mills developer David S. Brown Enterprises and partner Arrow Parking bought the parcel in 2005, they argued the structure had outlived its use and fought preservationists to tear it down, despite its embodiment of a style of architecture known as Brutalist.

The team — known as One West Baltimore Street Associates — proposed two towers with about 450 apartments, more than 150,000 square feet of retail space and a five-story parking garage. (Other projects by David S. Brown include Metro Centre in Owings Mills and the Symphony Apartments in Midtown.)

The Mechanic's demolition finally began in 2014, but the developer has maintained that the lack of progress since is due to the August 2014 lawsuit filed by Urban Growth Property LP, which owns the adjacent DownUnder Garage.

Representatives for the developer either did not respond or declined to comment last week, but in a May 2015 court filing, One West Baltimore said: "This suit presents the only major impediment before construction of the new development may commence."

The DownUnder Garage closed its Charles Street entrance last year after it was damaged during the demolition. (It's still accessible from Lombard Street.)

Efforts to reach a resolution of the question out of court have failed, said attorney Charles O. Monk II, a partner at Saul Ewing who represents the parking garage owner. The garage is an asset of Chicago-based Interpark, which also owns the 300 E. Pratt St. parking lot a few blocks away, where it initially proposed an apartment and hotel tower and still plans to redevelop.

"My client has always been supportive of development, which is why we have attempted to resolve this many times and still stand ready to resolve it in a fair and equitable manner for all concerned," Monk said.

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The delays moved attorneys for the city to file a brief in the case earlier this year.

"The longer the space at the intersection of Baltimore and Charles streets remains empty and unproductive, the more the progress of the city in pursuing its duty to improve the general welfare of its residents is hampered," they wrote. "The sooner the planned development at the location can be built, the better for the people of Baltimore."

Arguments over garage access revolve around deeds and leases organized by the city in 1964 as it brought developers on board to create what became Charles Center.

Urban Growth maintains that the deed for its parking garage, which included the easement allowing access to the property from Charles Street through the Mechanic site, is older than the lease granted to the original Mechanic developer, granting it a right that can only be terminated by mutual agreement.

One West Baltimore contends that a purchase clause in the lease outlined that the access, provided via a ramp, would end when the city sold the property or in 1999, 40 years after the start of the urban renewal plan. Use of the Charles Street entrance had been allowed since as a courtesy, it said.

The firm also argues that all the documents in question were created during the Charles Center development, with overlapping dates.

Last year, Baltimore Circuit Judge Audrey Carrion ruled in favor of the developer. Urban Growth appealed.

As the dispute lingered in the courts, the Downtown Partnership fielded complaints about the site. This fall, the organization installed screens depicting picturesque rowhouse streets and positive messages such as "Hey Baltimore, you're cool" on the chain link fence that runs the perimeter of the property. Similar screens also surround a demolition site at 325 W. Baltimore St., another long-planned David S. Brown apartment tower.

The goal was to "improve the look" for pedestrians and visitors to neighboring properties, Fowler said.

"Everyone recognizes that it's not ideal to have a hole in the ground," he said.

Office workers and others near the site were quick to complain about it last week.

"It's an eyesore. It's horrible," said Dominic Ford, 45, who works at the nearby Hotel Monaco, where he said guests frequently ask what's happening next door. "It's hurting the city."

Waiting at a nearby bus stop, Londae Davis, 28, of Essex noted the inconvenience to pedestrians caused by both David S. Brown demolition sites, which have taken up sidewalk space.

"You take down a part of something to leave a mess for several years, it [takes] a toll," she said. "I just hope they're making something good out of it."

Architect Klaus Philipsen, who has been following the project since the early debates over preserving the theater, said the open pit reminds him of wreckage left by Allied bombing that he saw growing up in postwar Germany. He said does not understand why the lawsuit would stall the project for so long and is worried the delay could mean the project misses its market moment.

"The worst outcome, of course, is to have nothing," he said.

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