Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why are there two holes downtown without construction?

The BBJ likes click-me question-headlines such as:

The former Mechanic Theatre site remains a huge hole.

 Here's why.


But sometimes the answers in remain skimpy, such as in this article. To explain why the Mechanic had been eagerly demolished to leave behind that "huge hole" sitting idle for about half a year now, the BBJ article quotes the lawsuit about the underground garage. That hardly can be all, though.
The same article also states that the project still needs final UDARP review.
The biggest hole downtown and no action

So why, for example, isn't that final review approval being obtained while the lawsuit drags on?
And why did this matter of access rights not get resolved before the demolition? For a while the only thing standing was that covered garage entrance and cars could actually get in and out. But then the entrance cover was also demolished and the car entrance is gone already, so why not move forward with the entire construction while the appeals is negotiated? Even if the appeals has staying power (does it?) it would probably not preclude all construction. Couldn't utilities, footings and the like be done anyway, the site seems large enough.

The article mentions the initial hold up from preservationists trying to preserve the Mechanic, a monument of sculptural architecture that had made it once to the front pages of magazines, something that can be said about only very few Baltimore buildings. But it fails to mention that preservationists were duped by Howard Brown when he presented a very plausible design by Shalom Baranes Architects in DC that realized Brown's program and incorporated the Mechanic. The appeaser faction of the preservationists acquiesced asking, why do we need landmark status for the building if Brown preserves it anyway? As soon as the building had not been landmarked, Brown changed his mind and his design. Oops, he said, that Mechanic is too awkward and costly to integrate. The DC architects then added a second tower, making the design much less interesting. The City went ahead with that change of course, as always happy to have an investor. In the case of this important downtown corner, I would agree, rather have a good new mixed use design than a boarded up Mechanic.
The Shalom Baranes design with Mechanic that was ditched

There are plenty of people who don't trust Howard Brown to move forward with the Shalom Baranes design on the Mechanic and also, pretty much concurrently, with the second also very large mixed-use project on the south side of the 300 block of West Baltimore Street. Here, too, demolition of a historic garment district building and an unsightly garage happened quickly after Brown had site control and since then, nothing. 

I have argued with friends that both projects will likely happen as designed, friends who said "no way", in part based on Howard Browns history of being an extremely tough negotiator on the Owings Mills TOD, on his history with historic preservation when he had demolished one of the oldest houses in Baltimore County in an overnight coup in 1996 (only to build a replica in a different location). And then there is his rather bland Symphony Center as proof proof that Brown isn't necessarily a fan of pretty architecture for the sake of aesthetics. But then, on the other hand, his company did a real good preservation job on the 400 block of West Baltimore Street. After his Owings Mills TOD finally came out of the ground Brown also has become a fervent advocate for mixed use, TOD and progressive urban design practices.
the other hole: 300 West Baltimore Street: Rapid demo and then nothing

I wished I had the means to shed some light on all of those contradictions and inconsistencies. But when I asked BDC and DPoB about the delay on the Mechanic site, I got the same answers that the BBJ now prints, thinking at the time, they are not worth a story. As it stands, we still don't really know why Howard Brown's two big  holes in downtown sit idle.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The now proposed design for the Mechanic Site

The proposed development for 300 West Baltimore Street