Out in the suburbs, it seems, people are yearning for urbanity.

Shoppers mob The Avenue at White Marsh, a three-year-old retail center designed to look like an old-fashioned Main Street. Similar developments have been proposed for land near the Owings Mills Metro station and for the U.S. Air Arena site in Prince George's County.

But for the traditional shopping district in downtown Baltimore, public officials are considering a revitalization plan that would demolish much of a four-block area featuring exactly the sort of urban ambience the suburbs are scrambling to imitate.

Do the city planners know something the others don't? Or in their quest to save Baltimore's moribund retail center, are they about to destroy it?

These are the questions raised by "Howard Street USA," a $150 million, mixed-use development that would be the largest component of Baltimore's $350 million initiative to rejuvenate the west side of downtown.

The plan, proposed by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore and Grid Properties of New York, calls for a mix of renovated buildings and new structures in the area bounded by Howard, Fayette, Liberty and Clay streets.

The highlight of the plan is the proposed conversion to offices of the former Stewart's department store, an 1876 building that is one of the area's architectural gems. But in the main, the Weinberg proposal calls for a large degree of demolition. As much as 80 percent of the existing buildings in the four-block area -- more than 40 in all -- are targeted to come down to make way for new structures designed to attract "big box" retailers and other businesses that aren't downtown now.

Local preservationists have argued that most of the area's commercial buildings should be saved as part of any redevelopment plan because they possess a richness and authenticity that help distinguish downtown Baltimore from the blandness of the suburbs. To them, the Weinberg plan reflects an "urban removal" mentality prevalent in the 1960s but since discredited by most planning experts. They argue that a preservation-based development strategy, as seen in other proposals for the West Side, makes more economic sense and would result in a less sterile environment.

The preservationists -- and others who care about the West Side -- are right to be alarmed. The Weinberg plan not only would rip the heart out the retail district -- and Lexington Street in particular -- it also would fail to offer suitable replacements for all the buildings it would wipe away. While certain elements are encouraging, the complete proposal doesn't do enough to knit the West Side together or build on its strengths, including its impressive stock of historic buildings.

At a time when suburbanites are discovering the virtues of urbanism, Baltimore has a rare opportunity to reinforce the genuine urban character of its retail core.

In its current configuration, though, Howard Street USA could do the opposite.

Death by Big Box

The ambitious plan for Howard Street USA calls for an infusion of shops, offices, movie theaters, housing and garages that together could form a bridge between the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus and Charles Center.

Weinberg and Grid were selected to redevelop the four-block district after they submitted a formal bid in response to the city's request for proposals last year. Tentative plans call for 400,000 square feet of retail space, 350,000 square feet of office space, 350 apartments and two parking garages providing parking for a total of 1,000 cars.

The project would take shape along both sides of the 100 and 200 blocks of West Lexington Street, the pedestrian-only corridor that connects Charles Center with Lexington Market. The Weinberg team proposes to preserve at least seven buildings considered historically or architecturally significant. Besides the Stewart's building, they are: the American National building, the former Kresge store, Barenburg Optical, and three buildings on the east side of Howard Street between Lexington and Fayette streets -- one with a rare cast-iron front. The former Baltimore Equitable Bank building also will stay.

But for the most part, the plan calls for new buildings to take the place of existing ones. While members of the Weinberg team say they're committed to preserving key buildings, especially on corners, they contend that many of the older buildings should come down because they're small, in poor condition and can't easily be adapted for large retailers or parking. They also believe that to change the character of the neighborhood, they need to dramatically alter its appearance as well.

The most radical change would occur on the south side of Lexington Street, between Park Avenue and Howard Street. As it exists, this stretch epitomizes the architectural variety that makes the West Side humane, walkable and memorable. Buildings there include the former Brager-Gutman department store at Howard and Park, a former McCrory's 5-and-10-cent store, a former Read's Drug Store at Howard and Lexington, and the old Schulte United building, with an elegant terra cotta facade.

The developers propose to replace these and other buildings with a three-level structure containing stores, movie theaters and parking. The design of the new building is preliminary, and no tenants have been announced. But early renderings indicate that it would be made of steel and glass, with floor-to-ceiling windows and Times Square-style signage and supergraphics. Design Collective of Baltimore is the architect.

The developers say this building is modeled after "Harlem USA," a 300,000-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex that Grid constructed at 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in New York City. Largely complete, the $66 million metal-and-glass building has been hailed for bringing new retail activity to Harlem. Tenants include Modell's Sporting Goods, the Disney Store, Old Navy, HMV Music, a New York Sports Club, Chase Manhattan Bank and a Magic Johnson's cinema complex -- just the sorts of businesses that Baltimore planners want for the West Side.

For the developers and tenants, the proposed replacement building on Lexington Street would have certain advantages. It would put a "critical mass" of retailers in one block, and spaces presumably could be built to their specifications. Merchants would have direct access to the street, and the generous expanses of glass would let passers-by see what's inside.

There is something to be said, too, for trying to use retailing architecture to transform an area's image. In San Francisco, the four-story, $85 million Sony Metreon entertainment center, featuring restaurants, shops, theme park attractions and an IMAX theater, is an easily identifiable attraction that frames one edge of a public park and complements other modern buildings in the city's Yerba Buena arts district.

Howard Street USA clearly represents an attempt by the developers to make a bold architectural statement that will draw people to Baltimore's West Side. But there is a risk that the tradeoff won't work-- that this new image may be less enticing than the developers hope, while part of the real Baltimore is reduced to rubble.

Although a single structure may be efficient and functional, the glass box depicted in preliminary renderings has nothing in common with the surrounding retail district. It's big and shiny, but it lacks the disorganized complexity and visual spontaneity that can make urban areas so lively.

In many ways, it comes across as an urban shopping center for people who don't like cities -- flat, formulaic, hermetically sealed off from the street. It's the sort of prepackaged presence that poses a threat to urban culture: Death by Big Box.

Two sides of the street

The shortcomings of the "big box" solution are especially apparent when one compares it with Weinberg's plan for the north side of Lexington Street. Here, the developers propose to retain the Stewart's and American National buildings, like bookends, and then fill the area between with new structures.

Again, work by Design Collective is at a preliminary stage, but it calls for the Stewart's Building to be recycled for high-tech office use, with retail space at street level. Smaller buildings east of it would be torn down to make way for a mid-rise building containing 164 apartments, with shops at street level and parking below. Preliminary sketches indicate that the replacement structure would be clad in masonry.

The buildings slated for demolition on the north side of Lexington Street, between Howard Street and Park Avenue, lack the cachet of those on the south side. In many cases, their upper levels have been covered over, making it difficult to tell what architectural value they have underneath. Between Park Avenue and the American National building is a short but pleasant stretch of commercial structures from various periods. The Weinberg plan calls for them to be torn down for a parking garage.

Still, in contrast to the proposal for the opposite side of the street, this part of the Weinberg plan comes as a relief, primarily because it saves the Beaux Arts-style Stewart's Building. Constructed by the Posner department store family and acquired in 1901 by retailer Louis Stewart, it's a proud remnant of Baltimore's retailing history, a fragile beauty with delicate details.

While the early design for the adjacent apartments looks rather generic, it at least indicates that designers are making an effort to create a building that fits in with its context.

The West Side is an area that grew over a long time, and that's a large part of its appeal. It consists of buildings with different heights, styles and details. There's a history of building by accretion. The challenge for developers and architects working within this context is to find a way to insert large replacement structures in a way that respects this tradition of incremental building without resorting to cutesy-ness or stage-set theatricality.

Architect Richard Burns, a principal of Design Collective, says that his design team recognizes this and that the renderings released so far shouldn't be taken literally. Once the next stage of design work commences, he says, "we will take a careful look at all the buildings. There's going to be a real sensitivity to respecting the area's traditions."

Still, the sharp differences in planning for the two sides of Lexington Street raise more than a few concerns about the economic and aesthetic strategies behind Howard Street USA:

* The two sides of the street do not appear compatible with each other, architecturally or otherwise. The presence of a large shopping and entertainment complex, open late into the night, could hinder efforts to lease apartments directly across the street.

* There appears to be some confusion as to whether retailing or housing is driving this plan. While city officials say residential development, not big-box retailing, is the driving force behind the West Side rejuvenation effort, the Weinberg proposal seems to treat housing as an afterthought.

* Parking takes up too much prime space. Instead of leveling entire blocks for parking, the developers should explore ways to take down only buildings that few would miss, while leaving intact those whose fronts could "slipcover" a garage, especially on Lexington Street.

'A sense of place'

Specific design issues aside, the decision by Weinberg and Grid to put so much emphasis on new construction appears to be out of step with other recent development decisions that have been successful in Baltimore.

City officials have begun to talk about "the coolness factor" in local real estate -- the ability of Baltimore's funky older buildings to attract Internet entrepreneurs and other young professionals who don't want to work in sterile office towers. But if the coolness factor works for offices, why not for shopping and housing, too?

"Historic preservation gives another kind of nourishment to downtowners and tourists," observes Julian Beinart, a professor of city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It triggers memory and associations. It speaks of stability and permanence and the past. It ultimately adds to the density of experience, a commodity which the downtown still has more of than anywhere else in the American city."

As a market, Baltimore responds well to preservation projects. In recent years, many of the city's most popular developments have involved renovation of old buildings, including the Pier 4 Power Plant, American Can complex, B&O; Warehouse, Mount Washington Mill, Port Discovery and the Charles Theater. Others are in the works, including the Montgomery Ward building, Power Plant Live and Tide Point.

Weinberg's architect, Design Collective, has been responsible for some of the most resourceful renovations in the city, including master plans for recycling the Power Plant, the American Can complex and Tide Point. On the West Side, quirky older structures such as the former Brager-Gutman building could be ideal tests of the firm's ingenuity.

Also troubling is the disconnect between the glass-box approach to Howard Street USA and more preservation-oriented projects planned for the West Side, including the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, the Centerpoint block east of the Hippodrome, and the conversion to apartments of the old Hecht Co. department store.

Around the nation, developers are discovering that preservation is good business, former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut III said in a talk this month to the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

"People want a sense of place," said Hudnut, who helped rejuvenate downtown Indianapolis during his 15 years as mayor. "People want a feeling of rootedness -- something that differentiates their space from the strip, the mall, the nearest megastore, the formula-designed chain store -- and older buildings do that. What a wonderful opportunity an older city like Baltimore has to capitalize on this."

"The more variations there can be [in buildings along a street], the better," the noted urbanologist Jane Jacobs wrote in her landmark book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." "As soon as the range and the number of variations in buildings decline, the diversity in population and enterprises are too apt to stay static or decline instead of increasing."

By these standards, the bold new statement made by Howard Street USA may be all wrong for Howard Street, Baltimore.

Doing what's right for Baltimore

Now the city faces an important decision. Will it accept the Weinberg-Grid plan as submitted? Or will it ask the developers to revise their proposal so it's more consistent with other initiatives in the area and free of internal conflicts? The Stewart's restoration is so promising it could begin tomorrow. But the glass superblock, so alienating and antithetical to the rest of the area, needs to be rethought.

Fortunately, city planners have decided to do just that. The Baltimore Development Corp., which oversees downtown development for the city, recently commissioned Design Collective to take another look at the West Side, including the Weinberg project, and recommend design guidelines for the entire area. Officials also want suggestions for linking the West Side historic district with neighboring districts such as Mount Vernon and Seton Hill.

In the meantime, the city is moving ahead with Howard Street USA by negotiating a land-sale agreement with Weinberg. But instead of handing over control of all four blocks at once, the development corporation intends to convey the Stewart's Building and two smaller adjacent properties to Weinberg so it can begin work on that phase of the development. The terms of the agreement will be presented to Baltimore's Board of Estimates for approval this week. Separate agreements, covering the sale of other portions of the four block area, will be presented to the Board of Estimates as plans are firmed up.

This phased-in strategy makes sense. It gives the Weinberg team a chance to move ahead with renovation of the Stewart's Building, while giving the city more time to make sure every part of the plan reflects sound judgment and is worthy of public support. "We're trying to do this in sensible increments," says Development Corp. president M. Jay Brodie. "We only get to do this once."

To date, the Weinberg Foundation has done more than any other group to show the potential for revitalizing the West Side by assembling a task force of "stakeholders," commissioning a private study of the area and using that study as the basis for its own redevelopment proposal. Now it's up to the city to take the next step and decide how to make that plan work for the entire area.

Since the 1970s, Baltimore's prowess in guiding development has been to take an idea that has worked elsewhere and carefully adapt it to a local setting, not just clone another city's creation. There's nothing wrong with looking to Harlem for ideas or in seeking to attract big-box retailers. But it needs to be done in a way that's right for Baltimore.

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