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Mechanic Theatre not on landmark list

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre will not be added to the city's landmark list, even though the city's preservation commission determined more than a year ago that it met the criteria for designation and recommended that it be listed.

Baltimore's Planning Commission voted 7-0 yesterday to keep the shuttered theater at 1 W. Baltimore St. off the landmark list, after hearing testimony that its owners didn't want it to be added but do plan to preserve "80 to 90 percent" of its shell as part of a large redevelopment project.

The decision marks an end to an 18-month campaign by local preservationists to protect the 1967 theater from demolition or defacement by designating it a local landmark - an action that would have given the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation authority to review and approve any changes to the exterior.

It marks the first time since the preservation panel was created in 1964 that the Planning Commission has declined to support the panel's recommendations to give landmark status to a building. It also establishes a clear process for the theater owners to follow as they seek city approval and financing to redevelop the Mechanic property, which has been vacant since 2004. The building is owned by the principals of Arrow Parking and David S. Brown Enterprises.

As a result of the Planning Commission's decision, the landmark designation process has been terminated, and the developers won't be required to obtain approval for their plans from the preservation commission - a layer of design review they wanted to avoid. But they will have to present their plans to the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel, which advises the Planning Commission.

Representatives for the development team said yesterday that the owners thought two review groups might have conflicting reactions.

The conceptual plan, by Shalom Baranes Associates of Washington, D.C., calls for most of the theater's shell to be preserved as part of a mixed-use complex that also would include a 32-story apartment and hotel tower at the southwest corner of Baltimore and Charles streets.

Preliminary plans call for the project to contain 115,580 square feet of retail space, approximately 100 hotel rooms, approximately 230 residences and 218 parking spaces underground.

Stanley Fine, an attorney for the developers, said they do not have a firm cost estimate or construction timetable for the project. He said the planning commission's decision gives them the ability to develop a design that they can present to city officials for approval.

"We now have a definite review process," Fine said. "That's something we wanted."

Members of the Planning Commission said they were confident that the urban design panel would be an appropriate body to review the design.

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