Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How a glorious future can spring from behind shuttered doors

The heart of the Westside is located between Lexington and Fayette and between Park Avenue and Howard Street and has taken a firm hold  in the collective idea about Baltimore as a failure named Superblock. That failure could probably be best described as the confluence of urban decline, government failure, recession, litigious envy and environmental racism.
Developers, architects and other consultants touring
the Reid Drugstore building at Howard and Lexington
Streets (photo ArchPlan Inc.)

But that is the past. The present and the future may be best represented by Darron Cooper, the new project manager of the Baltimore Development Corporation.  Coming from Atlanta, Georgia, he is one of the millennials coming to Baltimore.  Darron is full of enthusiasm and, given his short amount of time on the job, an astounding amount of knowledge about the site and its history. His knowledge and enthusiastic assessment as the Bromo Arts District as a "up and coming neighborhood" were on display as he guided a group of potential developers, consultants and architects through what was billed as a "Pre-Proposal Conference and Site Visit"  for the new BDC RFP currently underway. Kimberly Clark (Executive Vice President of BDC) and Brian Greenan (Economic Development Director) were also at hand to answer questions, so was Staycie Montgomery of the City's historic preservation oversight group CHAP and Priya Bhayana, Director of the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District.

Those about 30 participants (not counting city staff) showing interest in the RFP and a two hour tour through boarded buildings in various states of decay were a good sign for a brighter future. This heart of Baltimore's once glorious downtown retail teamed with then well-known brands such as Reid's Drugstore, Woolworth, Brager Gutmann, and McCrory.

The most substantial building in terms of volume and condition is the former Brager Gutman department store has eight respectable floors constructed from wood joists filled with slag. It would make a great apartment conversion and its floor plate is large enough for a midsize retail operation and could even interest current national brands such as Old Navy.
Brager Gutman building (photo ArchPlan Inc.)

Floor plate of the Brager Gutman building (photo ArchPlan Inc.)

The Reid Drugstore is less remarkable for its historic architecture (much of it lost, both inside and out due to fire and decay and demolition) than for its history as the place of equal rights sit ins at the lunch counter that led to the integration of all area Reid's drugstore. Already cleared of its floors and interior rubble with only stairs and mezzanine walkways remaining, its soaring volume presented a great promise as an urban micro-brew or cutting edge urban retail outlet such as Urban Outfitters who have a raw kind of demolition look in many of their urban locations.

Then there is the large vacant lot that was once the Trailways and Greyhound bus station, a place the previous development team had suggested for a residential high rise.

One of the most historically significant architecture can be found in the great cast iron building facing Howard Street that used to be the McCrory store. The entire bottom of its facade is currently gunked up with cheap sheet-metal storefront materials. How wonderfully those rare cast iron buildings can be restored can be visited also on the Westside on Fayette and on Baltimore Streets.
Cast iron facade on Howard Street
(photo ArchPlan Inc.)

Unlike in the initial 2004 "Superblock" RFP, this offering is not any longer conceived as a milestone catalytic project all to be done by one master developer. Instead potentially interested parties can select whatever parcel or building they like to re-use. While the original approach brought large capacity developers who wanted to re-introduce large scale retail to the area which required large level floor-plates and made preservation very difficult, the new approach allows smaller investors a shot at potentially smaller, local retail with housing above.

Is there a future for a Baltimore Westside without chain restaurants, big boxes and corporate offices? Is there enough mom and pop smaller retail and restaurant business to go around and fill gigantic floor area that all the first floors represent? As one who has had an architectural practice on the Westside for near 25 years with several projects of various uses in the area, I certainly think there is.

This will be unlikely to happen just by itself, it requires a clear branding of the Westside as a place for historic buildings, small stores, local restaurants, the market and music, theater and entertainment. That such a thing is not impossible has been proven in Over the Rhine in Cleveland, or much closer by, in our own commercial districts of Federal Hill, Fells Point and recently Highlandtown.
Brian Greenan, Economic Development Officer  at BMC 

explains the former Trailways site to tour
participants (photo ArchPlan Inc.)

The creation of the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District is a good start. The full overhaul of Lexington Market currently in design another, so is the full block new development under design for the 300 block of North Howard Street.  There are many reasons for Darron Cooper to be bullish about Baltimore's Westside.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about the "Superblock" tour yesterday

The BDC RFP can be obtained here

Site Plan from the RFP

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