Friday, March 15, 2019

A brand-new retro Lexington Market is supposedly right around the corner

The big news at the design review panel yesterday wasn't that the new Lexington Market would be designed as a traditional market shed and not as the previously proposed glass box. The big news was that years of uncertainty about the future of the market are supposed to finally come to an end. "It is real", Seawall representative Jon Constable said. Seawall is the design build partner of the City in the endeavour.

That's a big deal. For years customers and merchants of Baltimore's largest public market knew only one thing: the powers to be didn't love the old market and wanted to build something new instead of investing in the old. The only certainty in this vague future  was that there would be no money to fix what wasn't working in the ever more decrepit old hall. As a result, shoppers stayed away, stalls remained vacant, then even less customers showed up, and so on. This death spiral is still in full force. But now it should end in 2021 when the brand-new market is scheduled to open.
Rendering of the upper level market hall (BCT Architects)

Here is what Jon Constable of Seawall Development said about the project: "It is under a very tight timeline". Construction is slated to begin a year from now, Seawall is part of a design-build contract with the City, has hired a new architect and has no equity stake in the project. It will withdraw after completion of the new market building. This means Lexington Market will remain owned and managed by the City as public market just like now.
Baltimore’s Lexington Market is the oldest market in America. Founded in 1782 at the site where it stands today, Lexington has served Baltimore and surrounding communities for more than nine generations. It’s as old as America itself. (Market website)
Baltimore's historic market shed
The concept of rebuilding the market on the south parking lot on Eutaw Street while merchants continue to sell in the old building isn't new. It was first presented in 2016 with an anticipated construction begin for 2018, a price tag of $30-$40 million, and a construction time of three years. This 2016 proposal followed earlier plans to rehab the old market for $27 million. However, as Robert Thomas of Baltimore City Markets stated upon request, that $27 million cost "was not confirmed by a professional cost estimator". The apparently most economical solution was never carried forth and eventually dropped by Baltimore Public Markets. The exact reasons remain somewhat mysterious, because the old market could have been renovated relatively easily once one would accept the sloping floor which was a pretty elegant solution allowing equal access from two streets that are on different levels by some 13'.

Two big problems immediately surfaced after the 2016 glass box design was unveiled: Nobody liked Murphy Dittenhafer's design and the cost estimate began rising. There wasn't nearly enough money for new construction, demolition and plaza design as cost estimates "ballooned to 60 million", according to Robert Thomas. After a poor reception at an initial UDAAP presentation, the concept languished and finally died without fanfare.

Eventually Seawall was hired to cut cost and restart the design with the help of BCT Architects, the firm that already had designed the last face-lift that the market had received, the one visible today. The new approach presented to UDAAP on Thursday saves the demolition cost of the East Market Building by leaving it standing, although, so far, without a designated purpose. It also reduces the cost for landscape construction through a much smaller plaza and it created with a traditional market shed a much more economical building with far less glass. Nevertheless, the cost is still estimated with $40 million, and there continues to be a $13 million funding gap. [Additional information provided by Seawall after this article was published puts the current budget for the new facility at $36 million and the funding sources at $17m from City and State, $10m equity from New Market Tax Credits, $7m from a HUD 108 loan with a remaining $2m gap]
Eutaw Street elevation (BCT Architects)

The new design approach did not question the decision of not using the old market building, leaving a big blank spot in the proposed solution. No longer slated for demolition,  its future appearance or use was "off the table" for now, as Jon Constable put it. Nobody from Baltimore Public Markets spoke. This leaves a fairly large question mark since the success of a new Lexington Market will largely depend on how that entire ensemble of City owned parking garages, office buildings and market sheds will be handled. There is no way that the new market can  succeed without sprucing up the area which shows many signs of neglect. Another big question mark is the future of the West Market and its adjacent historic multistory office building and garage which is subject to a separate request for proposals by BDC for which no selection has been made yet. 
Paca Street elevation (BCT Architects)

The proposed shed design is a vast improvement over the previous design and solves the height difference between Eutaw and Paca Streets far more successfully than the glass box, with its terrible interior circulation. The proposed shed remains a "two slab" design, though, i.e. two stories face Eutaw Street and one story faces Paca Street. This necessarily leads to a divided market: A smaller fresh foods market area on the lower level at Eutaw Street and a larger mix of fresh and prepared foods "food hall" type design for the upper level. The upper level at Eutaw Street is occupied by an "event space". A grand stair roughly at the 1/3 point of the building towards the west sits at an opening that connects the two floors for visual connections. Unlike the glass box design, which had put circulation along the edges to allow for a glass wall, the new design places the prepared food vendors along the north and south perimeter of the long shed. They sit below the lower portion of the shed roof below the "clear-story" window band, allowing accommodation of the venting equipment needed above kitchen and cooking areas of the prepared food vendors.
Aerial view of the proposed market seen from Eutaw Street (BCT Architects)

UDAAP members observed that the arrangement created a largely "impervious" north wall facing the "plaza", the opacity clearly in conflict with the traditional market concept of the historic 1803 historic market buildings which burnt down in 1949. As seen on old photos, those sheds had a lot of exterior market stalls all around the core building and its large roof overhangs and awnings expanding the roofs further out.

The new design struggles with balancing the desire to have a large open court in the center of the shed with open view lines and lots of daylight with the wish of also having a flexible and open side which opens up to the plaza, allows outdoor seating and outdoor market stalls in good weather.
The previous design by Murphy Dittenhafer

There are other competing notions: Especially the conflict between circulation and place-making, i.e. between being in a space versus moving through. This conflict affects the so called plaza extending Lexington Street towards Paca Street. The space was presented on the one hand as a major corridor through which people move to and from transit, a task the current "Arcade" with its doors didn't quite fulfill. Bike advocates hope for a "low stress" connection as well. But the plaza was also presented as a plaza suited for sitting down, eating prepared foods outdoors or for events and farmers markets. It is difficult to reconcile those two functions. and UDAAP comments questioned especially how inviting the provided spaces are for rest, eating or people watching.

The strong east-west flow across the substantial grade difference presents a major design problem for the building as well, especially in the age of barrier free access. The building aims for a free and easy east-west flow but the two story design requires elevators and a fairly substantial set of stairs, elements that tend to block open views. The proposed design solves these issues generally with elegance, but some issues remain as UDAAP observed in their comments.

One aspect escaped UDAAP's critique: The pretty low and  compressed entrance from Eutaw Street, probably the most frequented point of entry. The placement of a second story event space right above the Eutaw Street entrance makes the experience more like the entry into a subway than into a market hall. A fairly obvious remedy would be to delete the event space in favor of a grander two story entry. Giving up on the event space should hardly pose a hardship, given that the old market building eventually standing vacant is crying out for a use. It could easily be used, among other things, as an event space.

For years everybody agreed that Lexington Market is hugely important for the future of the historic Market Center, Baltimore's old retail core. Lately, far from being a pull, the market has even become a drag. The Seawall solution, after a few more tweaks, promises that the market can finally be the regional draw again it once was, and that its sister markets in Seattle, Philadelphia and elsewhere are to this day.  One can only hope that this time, its actually "real".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The article was updated on 3/26/19 based on an e-mail from Thibault Mannekin clarifying cost and sources

The arrangement of current market buildings (BCT Architects)

Upper level (BCT Architects)

Lower level at Eutaw Street side (BCT Architects)

Section showing interior stair area between upper and lower level (BCT Architects)

Section showing the shed, clearstory and the area with prepared meal kitchens (BCT Architects)

Existing market Atrium addition on the Lexington Street right of way (BCT Architects)

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