Superblock plan rejected after civil rights leaders protest

A $150 million plan to revitalize downtown Baltimore's West Side was rejected Thursday by a city design review panel after local civil rights and preservation leaders warned that it would demolish a key landmark in the history of America's civil rights movement.

Baltimore's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel voted to withhold approval of schematic plans for the Lexington Square retail and housing project until the developers and city officials addressed questions about a proposal to tear down the former Read's Drug Store at Howard and Lexington streets and other buildings within the so-called Superblock.

Developers said the Read's building would need extensive renovation because of mold and structural problems and said new buildings were needed to attract national big-box retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond, T.J. Maxx and Forever 21.

But scholars of African-American history argued for preservation of Read's as the site of a 1955 civil rights lunch counter sit-in by students from Morgan College, now Morgan State University. The event predated by five years a more famous sit-in at an F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., and prodded the Read's drugstore chain to open its 37 Baltimore-area lunch counters to all patrons, black and white.

"The sit-in movement … begins in Baltimore. It begins with Morgan. It begins with Read's Drug Store. This is a national treasure," said Larry Gibson, a law professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on African-American history.

"It's not an African-American story. It's a Baltimore story," said David Terry, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

Putting a plaque or medallions on a new building, as some have suggested, would not be sufficient to mark the significance of the civil rights protest at Read's, said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., past president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It's clear that they didn't do their homework as far as history is concerned," Cheatham said. "When you tell me you're going to give me a lollipop and let me go home, that's not enough. …You can't just tear down these buildings and put up a plaque and think we're going to go away."

The city panel turned down the preliminary design for the Superblock project after hearing more than an hour's worth of testimony.

The project, by Lexington Square Partners, is the largest private development planned for Baltimore's west side. The site is a two-block, city-owned parcel bounded roughly by Fayette, Howard and Lexington streets and Park Avenue. According to architect Peter Fillat and development team member Bailey Pope, it would contain about 179,000 square feet of retail space, 300 apartments, a 120-room hotel and a 725-space garage.

In all, the developers proposed saving all or parts of six buildings considered architecturally significant and razing another six buildings, including the Read's store, to make way for new construction.

Pope said the development would be an "economic engine" that would give city residents more shopping options and trigger additional development in the immediate area. He said it would create 650 construction jobs and about 500 permanent positions.

Pope said after the meeting that the development team remains eager to move ahead. "We still think it's a good project and there's a need for it and it will be good for the city," he said.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said his agency continues to support Lexington Square Partners fully and will work with the developers to address concerns about the design and other issues. "We're going to sit down with the team and decide what their next steps will be," he said. "We're going to put our heads together."

Brodie said at the beginning of the meeting that he does not take the discussion about the Read's building lightly. "I consider the struggle for civil rights, which is not over, to be the defining issue of my lifetime," he told the panel.

Regarding ways to mark the sit-in, he said, "We are certainly open to figuring that out, with the NAACP, with the Lewis Museum, with whoever else is interested."

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, announced that his organization would donate $100,000 "to create some real commemoration of what happened" during the sit-in at Read's Drug Store and encouraged others to donate as well. "We don't think having a plaque or a flag is enough," Fowler said.

He added that the Read's building's vacant and dilapidated condition does not help tell the story of what happened there.

Gibson, who serves on Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, noted that the city's preservation panel is required by law to review any plans for the Read's site. He pointed to a city statute that requires CHAP to review plans for all city-owned buildings with historical significance. "It's not optional," he said.

Members of the design review panel questioned other aspects of the Lexington Square project as well, from the exterior "skin" of the apartment tower to the decision to preserve only portions of several other buildings on the site. The city's planning director, Tom Stosur, said he did not believe the entrance to the residences was big or "bold" enough, while panel member Walter Ramberg said he believed the Fayette Street side needed the most work.

In urging rejection of the developer's plan, design panel member Emily Eig said she did not want the city review board to be "complicit" in approving the demolition of a Baltimore building that has national significance.

"We really need to step back and look at the history," she said. "This corner cannot just be demolished and a medallion put up and have us say we did our job."

Panel member Stan Britt also said he wasn't satisfied by the developer's plan.

"I don't think that having a lobby … filled with mementos would speak to the significance" of the sit-in, he said.

Fillat, the architect, told the panel that he specifically went into the Read's building looking for the lunch counter and couldn't find it or even evidence of where it had been. But Johns Hopkins, the executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a city preservation advocacy group, said the building itself is a powerful reminder of the sit-in.

Hopkins said Baltimore has two other buildings that are considered important historic landmarks even though much of their original interiors no longer exist: the President Street train station, near the site of the first deaths in the Civil War, and the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Pavilion, which was converted to a history museum and conference center after the interior was destroyed by fire.

As with those buildings, the shell of the old Read's Drug Store is what's most important, Hopkins said. "This isn't an abstract discussion about preservation and urban renewal," he said. "These are buildings that matter to people."

To tell the story of the Read's sit-in and its impact, "it doesn't matter whether the lunch counter is there," Hopkins said. "We have the building."

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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