Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Superblock - new hope after 11 years of waiting

The Superblock has become what Park Place is in Monopoly, the grand prize in a game called Westside. It had become that not by virtue of its favored location, but simply through the one-upmanship of developers who did not hesitate to outfox the City in endless games of chicken.

So it came to pass that while bits and pieces of the Westside changed from a state of decay and moldy vacancy to one of restoration and new use, if not exactly glory, the big central square in the middle of it all sat dead and menacing while the great asbestos lawyer and Orioles owner, Peter Angelos, sued the City for having selected a certain developer, Lexington Square Partners. The suit reached for any available argument, including that the Baltimore Development Corporation had usurped government powers it shouldn't or doesn't have. The written arguments should make a good read for law students for generations to come.
Dead zone in downtown: The Superblock (photo: ArchPlan)

With all the legal maneuvering, that developer could not get the project properly started, financed or otherwise off the ground. When Angelos' suit finally ended and all appeals had been exhausted, the developer was spent as well, additionally sapped by what became known as the Great Recession.

The large dead square remained dead, or even more than dead, if such a thing can be said about a 2.5 acre slice of a once vibrant downtown that now acted like an albatross around the neck of every investment around it.

Mayors came and went, advice on how to get the Superblock going came and went, and the exhausted developer, finally having his privileges to the area taken back by the City, was now the one enlisting the courts with the same tenacity as his former nemesis, arguing he had been unlawfully fired.
the area called the Superblock sits smack in the heart of the
Westside (from the current RFP)

Last Thursday, eleven years after the initial award, the last available venue for another appeal had finally been exhausted and Lexington Partners was defeated for good.

The BDC did not wait long at all to put the whole shebang back on the market, carefully avoiding the moniker of Superblock, though.

This new speed is very laudable and the developers have to be equally swift to prepare proposals by January 15, 2016, not all that much time for potentially large proposals. Thankfully, the RFP is also written in a succinct and to the point manner, quite different from the convoluted way that these requests used to be.

The Superblock saga is one of those self inflicted Baltimore wounds like Sheila's gift-card scandal, the Freddy Gray case, the killing of the Red Line and many others, when a witches brew of incompetence, carelessness, bad actors and frivolous bravado become doom spirals that put this city in the company of New Orleans, St Louis and Detroit and others that share the same affliction.

One can only hope that in the Monopoly game the new card is really Park Place and no longer "go straight to jail, do not pass go, do not collect". Or that a new tale emerges, in which a princess will kiss the wilted frog and it, indeed, will turn into a prince.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for language


Baltimore SUN story
BBJ story, BBJ follow up story
BDC Request for Proposals
From the New York Times Arvive Feb 18, 2001:
In Baltimore's West Side, Preservation Story Unfolds

The more detailed story about the Superblock on Community Architect: How Big is too Big? (10/2012) was also reprinted in the Baltimore Brew

A rendering from the Lexington LLC proposal as reviewed by UDARP

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