Baltimore’s once-thriving retail district will get a second chance at life as a newly formed development team works to revive the long-dormant properties into a modernized commercial, residential and retail strip.
Dubbed the “Superblock,” the parcels — bound by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Avenue — are poised to be sold to Westside Partners LLC, a design team composed of four firms tasked with redeveloping downtown’s former five-and-dime store district.
The sale of more than a dozen of the properties to the team for $4.5 million is on Wednesday’s agenda for Baltimore’s spending board.
Located at the geographic heart of Baltimore, the district could create a “bridge” between the Central Business District, Mount Vernon and the city’s west side, said Kimberly Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which has been soliciting bids for the properties.
The proposed venture, called the Compass, seeks to both preserve and rebuild the district’s character, Clark said, and will be done incrementally, phasing in market-rate multifamily living, an entertainment venue, workspace, a grocery store, small businesses and a hotel.
“It’s so exciting, for me, to see something significant happening here,” said Clark, adding that past attempts to address the Superblock have stalled and languished over the years. “We’re solidifying the fact that this can be considered a true neighborhood.”
Preservationist groups have challenged past proposals, and the BDC has considered several separate plans over the years, including subdividing the Superblock. In 2018, Baltimore’s Planning Commission voted to formally designate two historic districts in the area: the Howard Street Commercial Historic District and the Five and Dime Historic District. The move protects the properties in the district from major upheaval or destruction and also qualifies developers for certain tax credits.
It’s also situated in the existing Bromo Arts District, which makes it eligible for further credits and subsidies.
The BDC selected the four firms — Landmark Partners, Vitruvius Co., Partnered and Mayson Dixon — following a call for proposals in March 2019. The group has partnered with Gensler, a design and architecture company currently also working on the redevelopment of Penn Station, and Cohere, a creative agency that specializes in neighborhood-focused development.
City Councilman Eric T. Costello, who represents the neighborhood in Baltimore’s 11th District, said the developers’ prior experience in the Baltimore market and with other historic projects makes them well-suited for the job. Three of the four developers — Landmark Partners, Vitruvius and Mayson Dixon — are based in the area.
“This is obviously a major hole that needs to be filled in, the doughnut hole, if you will,” Costello said. “Mixed-use is the right approach for the west side of downtown. The biggest concern is to make sure it’s not vacant anymore.”
The plan calls for adaptive reuse of most of each block, though new construction can be integrated, the four partners said in a news release.
Chris Janian, president of Vitruvius, said the partners share a belief in the city’s “potential.”
“We want to revive what was once the most active commercial and shopping neighborhood in the city,” Janian said in a statement. But, he added, “it has to be done thoughtfully.”
The team also will focus on keeping current residents and tenants engaged with the finished project, said Jayson Williams, CEO of Mayson-Dixon.
“We look forward to bringing the career-expanding and equity-building opportunities that Baltimore City deserves,” he said in a statement.
The parcel will complement plans for a new, state-of-the-art entertainment venue at the site of what is now the Royal Farms Arena, another project being steered by the BDC that began its search for developers last week.
The Superblock redevelopment will round out the redesign of the historic Lexington Market a few blocks away, another layer of the area’s historic fabric. It’s also located close to the Walters Art Museum and the Hippodrome Theatre.
Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore — a nonprofit tasked with overseeing central downtown’s business improvement district — said the city has been appropriately “bullish” on the Howard and Eutaw corridor.
“What happens here benefits the entire city,” Stokes said in a statement. “Because it’s the most transit-connected part of Baltimore, people can more easily access the jobs, retail, and housing opportunities that Compass creates.”
The district previously served as a destination for mid-20th century consumers. Shoppers used to flock to Baltimore’s four major department stores — Hutzler’s, Hochschild Kohn, Hecht’s and Stewart’s — which all took up space in the Superblock area.
Read’s, a Maryland drugstore chain that Rite Aid acquired in the 1980s, also occupied one of the buildings. The drugstore’s lunch counter was a flashpoint for early anti-segregation sit-in demonstrations during the civil rights era. That site has been optioned for demolition under previous proposals.
Prior proposals for the Superblock have been met with litigation and faced other delays, preventing progress on their redevelopment. In 2012, opponents, including Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, sued then-developer Lexington Square, saying the plans for a $152 million project with 300 apartments, more than 200,000 square feet of retail and a 650-car parking garage did not adhere to historical preservation guidelines. That lawsuit was dismissed, but by 2013 then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declined to approve another extension of Lexington Square’s land agreement.
The Superblock reopened for bids in 2015, and in recent years, the city has parceled out some city-owned vacant properties around it in smaller packages.
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The Westside Partners team does not yet have a development timeline, but hopes to complete its design plan by the end of this year, according to the release.