Saturday, May 13, 2023

Superblock: Still far from Take-Off

A full 10 years after the development of the "Superblock" in the old retail heart of downtown   had crashed spectacularly and the Mayor had pulled the plug on a developer who hadn't produced a viable project in eight years, a new take-off is still far away. This week the historic district commission CHAP denied a demolition request for 5 of 7 buildings included in the land area that was once called "superblock" and which is now divided in a north and a south parcel.  

Superblock, south parcels facing Fayette Street

In that intervening decade the Baltimore Development Corporation, BDC had issued a request for proposals (RFP) in 2015 with the insight that maybe smaller chunks offered for land disposition would be useful. CHAP  had declared the area a local historic district after the previous memorandum of understanding between the Maryland Historic Trust and the City lead to differing interpretations about historic preservation. In 2018 BDC issued another RFP and in 2019 BDC selected Westside Partners LLC from the eight proposals that were submitted. 

Once again BDC gave almost the entire old "Superblock" area into the hands of just one team, even though the term is now carefully avoided. Once again time was passing without much happening.  This time the team was more local, consisting of four different firms known from other projects in Baltimore:  Landmark as the developer for the redevelopment of what used to be the a gay club on Charles and Biddle Streets in historic Mt. Vernon, which hit the headlines when carelessness caused a neighboring historic structure to crack so badly, it needed to be demolished. Vitruvius Development, another partner, is involved with the large scale redevelopment in the block between Howard Street and Park Avenue, another BDC project which stalled for a long time and nearly went up for auction due to a loan default. The project is now underway and started site work in April.  

Compass rendering. New things behind old facades (Compass)

Vitruvius is led by Chris Janian, a former Development Executive of Paterakis' H&S Development. The third partner is Jayson Williams, CEO of Mayson Dixon Companies. Jayson Williams is building a company that reaches from initial strategies to organizing the supply chain during construction, "the first turnkey community development firm that engages in neighborhoods, builds residential and commercial projects, solves complex supply chain issues, manages properties of all sizes, and thoughtfully brings investment partners into underserved communities" (website).

Working as an African American and LGBTQ-owned firm in our offices two jurisdictions with the highest percentage of black residents in Maryland gives us a cultural perspective and desire to create opportunity for others that companies do not have. This compels us to emphasize the importance of racial and gender equity in all areas of life, by being great corporate citizens and giving back to communities we are engaged in. (Mayson Dixon website)

The Superblock team received a land disposition agreement in late December of 2020. Since then: Mostly crickets, except that Landmark left the team. Neither the project nor its website have advanced much beyond the initially published rendering showing the corner of Howard and Lexington Street and the name Compass. The team missed a BDC deadline in June of last year on a condition for the purchase of the necessary parcels from the City, reportedly a $4.5m deal.  

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)

The first notable action came last week with the request to raze the seven buildings in the first hearing on the matter. As noted CHAP denied the request for five of the buildings which it deemed contributing under historic standards. This shouldn't have been a surprise to the development team since preservation had been a matter of contention all along. The support documents for the "Five & Dime Historic District" clearly show all contributing structures. In a designated historic district contributing structures need to be preserved. 

It stands to reason that the development team never intended to preserve those buildings and will come back to CHAP and make a "hardship argument", a possible route to sway the commissioners to give up their preservation request and allow demolition after all. This route isn't very well defined and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Hardship arguments won the day for the demolition permit of the old Eddies in Mount Vernon, a result that caused much CHAP bashing. The hardship argument can revolve around cost, feasibility and arguments about marketability. The big surprise at the CHAP hearing was that Gensler is no longer the architect for the project. The argument for demolition was made by Davin Hong, a design principal at the Baltimore office of Hanbury, a Norfolk, VA based architecture firm. The historic preservation expert remains Baltimore based SM+P Architects.

The importance of the redevelopment of the Superblock area has grown, if anything, with the effects that Covid had on the liveliness of downtown. It also has made development more difficult. Office space has tanked and the prospects for new office space and retail are dim per a recent real estate forecast by ULI. That leaves mostly apartments as a still vibrant market, not enough to fill what is dubbed as a mixed use project. Jayson Williams of Mason Dixon Development appears to have emerged as the lead partner and spokes-person. He has eloquently spoken about all the other development that is going on around the Superblock, much of it has, indeed, progressed and completed, including the 400 block of Howard Street (east side) and the renovation of the Arena. The Compass team still needs to show it can realize its promises and manage and capitalize the big lift that is the redevelopment of both half of the Superblock.

The request to tear down the historic structures facing Fayette Street is not surprising given the highly varied shapes, floor plates and floor heights of the buildings. Any attempt to achieve larger unobstructed floor areas, especially needed for offices would fail if the full buildings have to be preserved. However, it remains curious why a developer would compete for the redevelopment of parcels that largely consist of historic buildings if preservation wasn't the prevailing strategy.

Large scale demolition along Lexington Street in

While it is true that redevelopment of a good number of historic structures would remain part of the project, even without the five buildings the developer wants to demolish, the desire for large unobstructed floor plates seems to be inappropriate in the given situation. 

Far too much has been already demolished in the area, notably the large swath of historic structures on Lexington Street facing the Compass North parcel which have been grassland since 2010. The south parcel facing Fayette Street also features a large grass parcel where the Trailways Bus Terminal once stood. It allows the developers to build contemporary structures and large floor plates in the same block where they now propose more demolition. Certainly there should be no more demolition without a bonded guarantee to rebuild in a certain time. Maybe the team should visit Cincinnati's Over the Rhine district, a large and very successful redevelopment based on historic preservation.

The redevelopment of the east side of the 400 block of Howard Street shows, that individual structures can rain intact and still be rehabilitated, although the long-term viability of that project still remains to be seen. The old Five and Dime retail district will never be on par with office buildings along Pratt Street, in Harbor East or on HarborPoint. But that is not the point. It will be authentic Baltimore because of its eclectic mix of historic buildings. Too much has already been erased, including "the mid-century modern" Trailways bus station and many buildings along Lexington Street. 

Impact-driven development with dynamic programming, incorporation of the arts, with a local tenant mix that respects the buildings’ and neighborhood’s historic fabric, to paraphrase the Vitruvius website will need more creativity than tearing down what makes things difficult.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Other articles about the Westside and the Superblock on my blogs:

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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