Preservation groups seek to save downtown buildings; City condemnation plan is called into question


Two Baltimore-based historic preservation groups are hoping to save dozens of downtown buildings they fear will be demolished as part of the $350 million west side redevelopment plan.

Baltimore Heritage Inc. and Preservation Maryland contend in a new report that 150 buildings in the 18-block downtown area slated for renewal have enough historical significance to be spared the wrecking ball.

Plan leaders say many of the preservationists' fears are unwarranted and that they intend to save those buildings that have historical significance and are economically viable.

Last month, the City Council introduced a bill to condemn 127 downtown properties as part of a comprehensive plan to resuscitate downtown.

By clearing space for apartments and shops, renewal proponents believe they can complete the city renaissance linking Inner Harbor redevelopment with the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Charles Center.

In a report sent to downtown redevelopment leaders over the holidays, the preservation groups request that older properties be restored rather than condemned for possible development.

Preservationists want the city to put the downtown section known as Market Center on the National Register of Historic Places and turn it into an area much like the French Quarter in New Orleans.

"Instead of clearing land and waiting for a big developer to come along, you can have a block-by-block, building-by-building renovation," said David Gleason, director of preservation planning for Baltimore Heritage, a 38-year-old volunteer group with 300 members.

Although the city intends to condemn 127 properties -- and a similar bill passed last summer condemns an additional 100 buildings along the Howard Street corridor -- taking properties by eminent domain does not mean they will be demolished, the plan's supporters say.

"The city doesn't plan to tear everything down," said David Stein, director of real estate development for the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the lead proponent of the downtown renewal plan. "The fact is there are some buildings that do have historical value and add to the fabric of the neighborhood."

Meeting with West Baltimore Street property owners last week, Baltimore Development Corp. President M. J. "Jay" Brodie said that economic viability will be the crucial test for deciding which buildings remain. The downtown renovation proposal, released in June and paid for by the Weinberg Foundation, showed that 25 percent of the downtown properties are vacant.

A Eutaw Street merchant asked Brodie whether getting his property designated a historical site would save it from being taken by eminent domain. Brodie replied: "Any buildings we're looking at must go through some test of economic reality."

Preservationists contend that condemnation and redevelopment are more costly than renovating buildings. City officials and developers could also take advantage of federal and state historical preservation tax credits, they said.

"Preservation is a wonderful tool in revitalizing neighborhoods," Gleason said. "It's Baltimore Heritage's feeling that there should be a potential offered to small- and medium-sized businesses."

Properties the preservation groups want to save include:

The Golden Horse Inn (Academy Hotel) at the northwest corner of Howard and Franklin streets. Built in the late 1700s, the hotel has provided lodging since the Conestoga wagon era, preservationists say.

Alberti, Brink and Co. at 322 W. Baltimore St. The 1867 building -- one of eight remaining cast-iron fronts in Baltimore -- is considered the most ornate by preservationists.

Kresge's at the southeast corner of Park Avenue and Lexington Street. The former store is considered one of Maryland's finest examples of art deco architecture.

Congress Hotel (Hotel Kernan) at 306-312 W. Franklin St., built from 1903 through 1905.

The preservation groups are hoping to meet with the BDC, the city's nonprofit business recruiting arm, to discuss their requests. Stein of the Weinberg Foundation said supporters of the redevelopment plan agree that many of the downtown buildings should be saved.

"Condemnation does not equate to demolition," Stein said. "Some of these properties are very viable."

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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