Defying Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and city redevelopment officials, Baltimore's preservation commission voted Tuesday to add the former Read's drugstore to the city's "special list" of landmarks, an action that protects the building from demolition for at least six months.
Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted 7-1 to grant temporary landmark status to the city-owned building because it was the site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in that had national significance in the U.S. civil rights movement.
The landmark designation, which takes effect immediately, means the exterior of the 1934 building at Howard and Lexington streets cannot be razed or modified for the next six months, unless the preservation panel approves. The panel also instructed the commission's staff to determine whether the building and others nearby are eligible for inclusion on the city's permanent landmark list.
These actions run counter to the wishes of Lexington Square Partners, a group selected by the city to build a $150 million development in the area bounded by Howard, Lexington and Fayette streets and Park Avenue known as the Superblock. The developers originally planned to raze the Read's building, which is part of the development site, but recently agreed to save two exterior walls and incorporate them into their project.
Harold Dawson Jr., head of The Dawson Co. of Atlanta and development manager for Lexington Square Partners, said in a telephone interview before the meeting that adding the Read's building to the landmark list would delay the start of the project — and postpone the creation of jobs.
Dawson said his group had hoped to begin construction by Labor Day and have at least 100 people working on the site by then.
Dawson said he is frustrated on behalf of the contractors, merchants and other community members who he said were counting on the 650 construction jobs and 350 to 400 permanent jobs the developers expect the project to generate.
"The delay … is jeopardizing our ability to put people to work this year," Dawson said. "Their efforts to stall the project are hurting the community."
Rawlings-Blake has said she does not believe it is necessary to give the building landmark designation since the developers already agreed to save two exterior walls.
With plans for 179,261 square feet of retail space, 300 apartments, 120 hotel rooms and 725 parking spaces, Lexington Square is the largest private development envisioned for the city's west side. It is expected to generate $2.3 million a year in property taxes and $18 million a year in sales taxes, according to the developer.
Arguments about economic benefits and job creation seemed not to sway the preservation commissioners, who said the purpose of Tuesday's meeting was to determine whether the Read's building was historically significant and deserved landmark protection.
"How can you not consider your proposal … to be selling black history down the river for short-term gain?" Eva Higgins, a commissioner, asked a member of the development team.
Before the Read's sit-in, the drugstore chain refused to serve African-Americans at the chain's 37 regional lunch counters. Shortly after the 1955 protest, Read's began serving all patrons, black and white. The Howard Street sit-in came five years before a more famous lunch counter protest at an F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C.
Other preservationists said they have challenged the Lexington Square project because they believe its design does not comply with a 2001 agreement, signed by city and state officials, that calls for certain buildings to be preserved in their entirety if possible. Despite their concerns about the design, they said, they want to see the area redeveloped.
"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," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland.
The developers said Tuesday that they understand the need to commemorate the sit-in and are working to determine appropriate ways to do so.
Dawson said he believes the best way to commemorate the sit-in is to bring jobs and vitality to the area.
"This is a catalytic, transformative effort," he said. "We're talking about giving people a future."