Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Miracle on Lexington Street?

Just when the handwringing over failing urban retail and deserted office towers and what it all could mean for the future of cities becomes ever more desperate, news reach us that the most dormant urban block in all of downtown Baltimore could have finally found a prince that kisses it back to life.

The "superblock" sitting dormant since 2003 (Photo: Philipsen)
Jay Brodie was still heading the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the Mayor was O'Malley and today's high school graduates were just being born. The year was 2003 and BDC thought that the renaissance of Baltimore's once premier retail center that BDC had dubbed the "Westside" would be best served with another one of those heavy-handed big-on-government procedures that had been popular in the previous century under the name of urban renewal. In that top-down approach government obtains all the properties in a large area, sometimes through condemnation ("eminent domain"), vacates them and then comes up with a big redevelopment scheme. Those redevelopments often eliminated the fine-grained urban fabric in favor of so called superblocks which were considered more efficient. 

Superblock corner Howard and Fayette Street (Photo: Philipsen)
Originally eminent domain power had been only used for public projects such as railroads and highways, but eventually it had become common practice that government would take the land and sell it right away to a private developer. ("land disposition"). The public interest to justify that approach had become couched in the terms of "slum and blight removal" and eventually simply as "economic development". In this manner BDC offered the entire land between Lexington Street and Fayette Street from Park Avenue to Howard Street up in a "request for proposals" in 2003.  Some merchants who were still active in many mostly marginal stores were not happy, but didn't have much of a voice. Even the famed Hippodrome hatters in the earlier developed superblock called "CenterPoint" had not succeeded in saving their historic hat store. (They got relocated into a new store in the rebuilt block, operated it a few years and then gave up. Other retailers in the block still struggle in maintaining viability.) 

Today, with systemic racism in planning much on our mind, most have a very dim view of urban renewal; too often it had meant removal of the poor, of blacks and of small businesses in favor of a restructured city in which developers and chain stores would benefit while the poor would go empty. 
Jay Brodie on Jan 10 when demolition began at the Weinberg block 
(Photo: Philipsen) 

Not that in 2003 old-style urban renewal was still all the rage either; this method had already run its course in the 1960s and 70s. That is why BDC's use of the term "superblock" was so puzzling. So was their approach which was in so many ways reminiscent of past failures. Even in a reflection that the long retired Jay Brodie wrote in the BBJ this July, his critique didn't touch on his own decision to go the superblock route, but focused on Mayor Rawlings-Blake instead. She  eventually followed the advice of the national ULI Advisory Team in 2013 and pulled the plug on the development team which had not produced any progress in 10 years of having had the exclusive rights to the site. Brodie wrote: 

Seven years later, reflecting on those events, I believe that was the City of Baltimore's worst-ever urban redevelopment decision. It was legal, but it was immoral. (Brodie)

Demolition of the Weinberg block
(Photo: Philipsen)
There is not much point in re-litigating the past in this manner, except for finding a suitable way forward. In their RFP from 2019 the superblock had been split in half, both halves being offered at the same time. The project was still couched in terms of economic development:

The City of Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), on behalf of the Mayor of Baltimore (the “City”), through this Request for Proposals (RFP), is seeking written proposals from developers experienced with adaptive reuse and new construction in historic districts for the purchase and redevelopment of City-owned property located in the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District (“Bromo Arts District”). The intent of this RFP is to promote redevelopment of these parcels (herein referred to as “the Site”) in a fashion that will achieve the City’s objectives including job generation, tax generation and mixed-use development that fits within the context of the Bromo Arts District – an emerging neighborhood with active storefronts and other ground-level uses.

The properties have been bundled into three assemblages (See diagram in Section III, Site Description). Developers can bid on one, two or all three assemblages. The Site is within the Market Center National Register Historic District and the Five and Dime Baltimore City Historic District. Reasonable effort should be made to preserve and repurpose historically contributing buildings.(BDC RFP in 2019)

Restored buildings 400 block of Howard Street (Photo: Philipsen)

The selection of another development team 17 years later will only truly become a "miracle on Lexington Street" if the new approach (still containing 19 properties) is somehow a less heavy lift with a higher likelihood of finding community support and the necessary funding to turn the plans into reality. Kimberly Clarke, Deputy at BDC, is optimistic. She told the SUN: 

“It’s so exciting, for me, to see something significant happening here. We’re solidifying the fact that this can be considered a true neighborhood.”(SUN)

The glacial pace of moving such a large project in Baltimore cannot only be seen in the 17 year history since the first request for proposals in 2003, but also in this latest RFP: Issued in March 2019 and splitting the site into two halves, it took over 1.5 years to whittle proposals down to six proposals and then select the winning team! By comparison, Denver built a full and vibrant new city quarter around its Union Station in less than 15 years. 

A new Lexington Market rising (Photo: Philipsen)

The selected development team consists of two partner firms, Landmark of Baltimore and Vitruvius of Pittsburgh. Chris Janian, the founder of Vitruvius was a Development Executive at H&S Properties Development in Baltimore. The development team proposes to develop the entire block. Gensler is to be the architect; a rendering of the project showing the former Read's Drug store in the foreground had been prepared by SM&P Architects in Baltimore. The project is said to cost more than a $100 million and supposed to be realized in phases. BDC hasn't put a press release on their website in years and there is nothing about this selection. 

Sparse info can be found on the agenda for the Board of Estimates.  It has to approve the "Land Disposition Agreement" states that  "The concept includes market-rate rental housing, retail, office, co-working, artist live/work-space, an entertainment venue, and a hotel."  The local Landmark team is currently redeveloping the former Grand Central club in Mt Vernon and slated to develop the currently vacant site with the saved former Martick's building on Mulberry Street. Neither firm appears to have developed any project on the same scale before, not counting the H&S projects. 

The team calls their project Compass and says this on their own website:

The Compass will bridge the divide between the Central Business District, Mt. Vernon, and the Westside, jump-starting more creative development in the once thriving area. More than that, the impact-driven development, dynamic programming, incorporation of the arts, and local tenant mix will respect the buildings’ and neighborhood’s historic fabric, interspersing history with modern, timeless design. (Vitruvius Website)
Luckily the Westside, as a whole, has not stagnated in the same way as the Superblock area in those last 17 years. As Jay Brodie notes in his BBJ reminiscence, there have been at least 2,500 apartments completed, such as Center Point, the Atrium, the old BGE Headquarters, the Abell building, Camden Court, the L on Liberty and now the Four Ten Lofts on Mulberry Street and the University Lofts on Paca Street, both still under construction.
Four Ten lofts at Eutaw and Mulberry nearing completion (Photo: Philipsen)

The old Hippodrome movie theater was transformed into the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center and there are plans to do something behind the fa├žade of the old Mayfair theatre. The area is now one of Baltimore's five Arts and Entertainment Districts. Dubbed "the Bromo", it features the Everyman Theater, the Mondo event space, various galleries and will soon have a brand-new Lexington Market. Almost the entire east side of the 400 block of Howard Street has been renovated, more construction is underway on the west side of the same block. The Mount Vernon Market and the Park Avenue Apartments are technically located in Mt Vernon, but they sure had a revitalizing effect on the Market Center District to the south (the "Westside").

Should the construction and rehabilitation of the Superblock really begin in 2022, it would fill a giant void and potentially be the project that really moves the former retail district over the hump for good.  Then it would also become finally time for the Weinberg Foundation to act on the land they cleared on the north side of Lexington Street in 2010. Their promise was always: "We will go after the superblock".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Other articles about the Westside and the Superblock on this blog:

Board of Estimates meeting 12-2-20 for approval of land
disposition. Last meeting of Comptroller Joan Pratt

The Superblock - new hope after 11 years of waiting (2015)

390 feet tall in the historic Westside (2015) still only a hole

Big Government, Big Retail, Big Renewal – How Big is Too Big? (2012)

Westside Stories 2 (2011)

Westside Stories 1 (2010)

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