Short-term lease for old station

The Baltimore Sun

Preservation planners in Baltimore have found a temporary occupant to reopen the historic but shuttered President Street Station this spring, while the city seeks a long-term tenant.

The office of Mayor Sheila Dixon has offered to lease the former train station to the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a three-year-old advocacy and service organization that needs work space near the downtown shoreline.

The Waterfront Partnership will use the city-owned building at 601 President St. as its headquarters and base of operations for nine safety guides and 11 hospitality guides who patrol the harbor promenade, according to managing consultant Laurie Schwartz.

The partnership also is prepared to open the building free of charge at certain times to tourists and others who would like to look inside and learn about the role it played in Maryland history.

Schwartz said the organization could move in by mid-month if a lease and other details are approved in time.

"It's in move-in condition," she said. "We feel humbled to be in there."

The move is intended to give the mayor's office time to identify a long-term tenant for the building, which dates from the 1850s and is the oldest surviving big city railroad terminal in the country.

President Street Station was a stop on the Underground Railroad used by slaves fleeing to the north, and it played a role in the first fatalities of the Civil War. It housed a Civil War Museum from April 1997 until November 2007, when the Maryland Historical Society closed it because it was losing money.

The mayor's office disclosed last year that the city would issue a request for proposals from groups interested in taking over the property, now part of the Harbor East renewal area. Local preservationists cautioned that city leaders should be careful to not let the building be demolished or over-commercialized.

Since then, two city divisions have been working to prepare the formal request for proposals - the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, part of the Planning Department, and the Baltimore Heritage Area, an arm of the mayor's office that promotes the city's heritage. The preservation commission also has recommended that the building be designated a local landmark to protect it from demolition.

Kathleen Kotarba, division chief of the preservation commission, and Jeffrey Buchheit, director of the heritage area, said they are working to issue the request for proposals this spring and that it could be six months to a year before a long-term user is identified.

In the meantime, they said, the city learned that the Waterfront Partnership was interested in occupying the building on a temporary basis. City officials invited the partnership to lease it temporarily for a nominal fee, so the building wouldn't stand empty.

"As a nonprofit organization charged with creating a vibrant, attractive, clean and safe waterfront promenade, the partnership is well-suited to assist the city in ensuring the building is well-protected and the remaining portions of the museum are kept available to the public," Buchheit said.

In addition, "this will allow us the time to thoughtfully complete the [request for proposals] process," he said.

The Waterfront Partnership's staff and members will be "the eyes and ears of the building," Kotarba said.

President Street Station was built as the southern passenger terminal for the old Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore rail line, later part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. On April 19, 1861, 700 members of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived there on their way to Washington and were attacked by an angry mob, resulting in the first fatalities of the Civil War. The station stopped operating as a passenger terminal in the 1880s, stopped operating as a freight terminal by the late 1960s and was converted to a museum at a reported cost of $1.3 million.

Created in 2005, the Waterfront Partnership works to promote and maintain Baltimore's waterfront promenade, from the Rusty Scupper restaurant on Key Highway to Bond Street Wharf in Fells Point. The waterfront became a business improvement district in 2007 - a counterpart to the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. Owners of 98 properties pay additional taxes to fund the Waterfront Partnership's work.

Although the safety and hospitality guides spend much of their time on the promenade, Schwartz said, they also need a place to report before work and lockers where they can store belongings. The group has been using third-floor space at Scarlett Place, a condominium and office building at Pratt and President streets.

Buchheit and Kotarba said the city's law department is preparing a lease that will enable the partnership to take occupancy. On a long-term basis, Kotarba said, the city wants to see the building occupied by a group that will preserve the building and provide access to the public. She said the city does not want to sell the building. "That's not an option."

Ralph Vincent, treasurer of the nonprofit group The Friends of President Street Station, said members want to work with the Waterfront Partnership to greet visitors and tell stories about the building's history. He said he has been invited to serve on the committee that will review redevelopment proposals and is optimistic about the interim arrangement and the emphasis on preservation.

"It's a lot more positive than when they first announced that they were just going to put it out for general development," he said.

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