Turning point for downtown

There are two ways downtown Baltimore could evolve over the next 20 years. It could become more like Atlanta, with glitzy office towers and hotels rising from a barren base of parking lots and public plazas. Or it could follow the model of San Francisco and Chicago, with well-preserved older buildings interspersed with contemporary structures.

The path Baltimore takes may well depend on the outcome of a legal dispute involving Redwood Street, the one-time "Wall Street of the South" and heart of the city's historic financial district.


A Bethesda-based developer, Donald J. Urgo & Associates, wants to demolish two buildings at the southeast corner of Redwood and Light streets and replace them with a 125-room Residence Inn by Marriott. The new building has been designed to evoke the historic character of Redwood Street but with all new mechanical systems and amenities. It would be the Camden Yards of extended-stay hotels.

Local preservationists, fearing the historical and cultural erosion of downtown Baltimore, filed suit to block the project on the grounds that the city's decision to issue a demolition permit is inconsistent with a 1977 urban renewal plan encouraging preservation of buildings along Redwood.


The preservationists say there are plenty of vacant or nonhistoric sites downtown on which to build a Marriott. They want the city to use its condemnation powers to acquire the threatened buildings and preserve Redwood Street's integrity. So far, the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley has declined. City officials are concerned about sending "the wrong message" to the business community if they derail a development project.

But in this case, they'd be sending the wrong message if they don't.

Rose from fire of 1904

The buildings along Redwood Street, from Charles to South streets, literally rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1904, which devastated much of downtown. As if to show they were not giving up in the face of adversity, business owners and merchants rushed to construct buildings that were, in most cases, better than the ones destroyed. The result was "the best business architecture we've ever built," according to Charles Duff, president of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. And most of it is still intact, forming, Duff said, a "great canyon of tall buildings along a narrow street."

The two buildings threatened by the Marriott project were part of that post-fire building spree. The four-story structure at 17 Light Street, constructed in 1904, was headquarters of the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company, a key force in Baltimore's boom as a center of maritime trade between 1852 and 1948. Designed by Charles E. Cassell, and characterized by its red brick and terra cotta trim, it later housed the Fairfax Savings and Loan Association.

Even more significant architecturally is the former Sun Life Insurance Co. building, a six-story structure built in 1916 at 101-109 E. Redwood Street. Distinguished by an ornate stone front, it was designed by Baltimore-born Louis Levi, who in 1905 became the first Jewish architect to join the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The preservationists have commissioned local architect Art Kutcher to prepare drawings showing how attractive both would be if preserved for commercial use.

Urgo & Associates explored ways to save at least one of the buildings, at the city's insistence. But its designers -- Sullivan Architecture of Valhalla, N.Y., and Rubeling & Associates of Towson -- concluded the buildings didn't work as a hotel and proposed all-new construction.

The preliminary design calls for an 11-story building with its main entrance on Light Street. It would have a four-story base, a heavy cornice above the 10th floor and windows designed to give the building a residential appearance. In many ways, it's a throwback to the 1930s-era apartment houses that line University Parkway near Charles Street.


To their credit, the architects strove to make the building compatible with others on Redwood Street. But while it has some features one might find in a building from the early 1900s, it has neither the pedigree nor the patina of the real thing. It lacks the heft of the Merchants and Miners building and the elaborate detailing of the Sun Life building. It would suffer by comparison with all the older buildings on the street.

Even if the design were more distinguished, the plan still would be troubling. Redwood Street is one of the most intact rows of Baltimore buildings dating from the early 1900s. It's the sort of environment that captivates film directors such as Barry Levinson, who featured it in "Liberty Heights." One corner disappeared with the recent demolition of the Southern Hotel. This would be even more chipping away.

Part of what makes Baltimore so memorable to tourists and residents alike is that it offers much more than the refurbished Inner Harbor. Two blocks from the waterfront are handsome old buildings that illustrate Baltimore's centuries-old role as a financial hub. Visitors can walk through layers of history. Take away Redwood Street, and one of the most important layers will be gone.

"This is not just about losing two buildings," warns Jimmy Rouse, a local preservationist and president of the Charles Street Association. "This is about a whole strategy of economic development.

"We've already threatened Redwood Street by taking away the Southern Hotel," Rouse said. "If we take down any more, we're shrinking it to the point that it's not going to appeal to anyone from the standpoint of history or architecture. ... Every little bit that we tear down means that everything is jeopardized in the future."

The irony is that Marriott executives understand better than anyone how much history helps draw tourists to cities. They've created hotels inside older buildings in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Washington and Boston.


"Tourists around the world are faced with a host of competing choices every time they leave home," Marriott's president of international lodging, Ed Fuller, observed earlier this year. "Virtually every study of traveler motivation has shown that, along with rest and recreation, visiting scenic areas and historic or culturally unique sites are among the top reasons people travel."

Important lessons

No matter who ultimately prevails in the legal wrangle over Redwood Street, several lessons have already come out of this debate.

n First, local preservationists are not going to get any special treatment from City Hall, and they should not expect it. It would be lovely if the current housing commissioner, Patricia Payne, took the same protective view of Redwood Street that Robert C. Embry Jr. did when he headed the housing department in the 1970s. Payne's willingness to uphold the demolition permit after repeated appeals not to do so (and a funding commitment from Embry's Abell Foundation to buy the buildings if the city condemns them), indicates that she is no patsy of the preservation advocates in this matter.

n Second, 36 years after a preservation commission was established in Baltimore, there appears to be confusion in city government about the role of historic preservation in downtown renewal efforts. As long as Baltimore's policymakers regard historic preservation and economic development as opposing forces, rather than realizing that they can be one and the same, districts such as Redwood Street will lose out. And Baltimore will end up looking far more like Atlanta than it does today.

n Third, preservation groups need to learn how to play the same development game as anyone else. It's not enough to plead for the city to save older buildings. They must make a strong economic case. Finding an angel such as the Abell Foundation to buy the buildings would be a good start if they can be wrested from Urgo, the contract buyer. But those buildings sat dormant long before Marriott and Urgo came along with their demolition plan. They've been for sale for years. With support from Abell or others, they could have been renovated by now. Local preservationists must find ways to be less adversarial, and more entrepreneurial.


n Fourth, the real estate market is changing in ways that favor historic preservation. Two years ago, the demand for older buildings was not particularly strong; today it is. As part of Baltimore's Digital Harbor initiative, local developers are talking about creating a "tech zone" downtown for companies seeking affordable, "cool" space in older buildings. The two Redwood Street buildings may not be ideal for conversion to an extended-stay hotel. But they are ideal candidates for this sort of use.

The increased marketability of older buildings means that historic preservationists and economic development chiefs aren't on opposite sides at all. In the new economy, historic preservation is economic development, and Baltimore's civic leaders need to recognize that.

"I've suggested to Jimmy Rouse that he should stop mentioning historic preservation altogether," said Janet Marie Smith, vice president of planning and development at Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse, a local firm that specializes in adaptive reuse of older buildings. "It's all economic development. He should be talking about how easy it is to take these vacant old buildings and get them revved up and ready for tenants in 12 months, much sooner than it would take to finish a new building. The byproduct is preservation, but the main result is more jobs downtown."

If the O'Malley administration wants to strengthen Redwood Street, it should impose a moratorium on any demolition plans for that corridor, as first advocated in a draft of the Downtown Partnership's master plan for the Central Business District. Then it should work with the Abell Foundation to save endangered buildings on Redwood Street, starting with these two. That would prevent further erosion of the corridor and set the stage for "authentic" new development inside existing structures.

City officials may worry that such actions would send the wrong message to Marriott. They shouldn't. As a global venture that reaps the benefits of heritage tourism -- and already has an enormous stake in downtown Baltimore -- Marriott ought to appreciate a preservation-oriented strategy as much as any company in the state. If Marriott really wanted to be a good corporate citizen, it would pull out of this ill-conceived project and find a better location for its latest hotel.