Last week, Baltimore was treated to several days of political theater over the forlorn downtown district known as “The Superblock.”
Before TV cameras and review panels, local pastors, civil rights activists, preservationists and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took turns supporting or denouncing plans for the “Lexington Square” project there – the biggest and longest-languishing redevelopment scheme in central Baltimore.
They argued about jobs, preservation of old buildings and the value of commemorating the site of a 1955 civil rights sit-in at an ex-Read’s Drug Store. By week’s end, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) and Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel (UDARP) let the plan proceed without requiring full preservation of Read’s or other historic properties on the site.
Missing from the hoopla were not only the key business players, but a clear-eyed assessment of whether the $150 million plan is really viable.
First, the players.
In 2006, four New York families – Goldman, Chera, Feil and Nakash – were given exclusive rights by the city to redevelop the large block bounded by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Ave.
The Goldman and Chera families control commercial and residential property in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with the Goldman group involved in the World Trade Center redevelopment, as well as the Four Seasons and Peninsula hotels.
The Feil Organization manages more than 26 million square feet of retail and commercial property. The Nakash family owns Jordache Jeans.
City documents show that the families control 80 percent of the development company under the collective name of Lexington Square Developers LLC and through four entities: BLDG Baltimore, ICS Baltimore, Feil-Baltimore and Nakash-Baltimore.
The documents are signed by Lloyd Goldman, president of BLDG Associates, and Isaac Chera, manager of ICS Baltimore and a principal in Crown Acquisitions.
Minority Firm the Public Face
The families did not make an appearance in Baltimore last week, although at least one emissary from the Goldman group was present as an observer.
Instead, the public face of the project was presented by the Dawson Co., a black-owned firm from Atlanta.
Bailey T. Pope and other Dawson officials appeared alongside Mayor Rawlings-Blake in her tour of the project last Monday and made presentations before city preservation and design panels.
With a 20 percent stake in the project, Dawson actually plays a relatively small role in the plan. In his presentation before UDARP, architect Peter Fillat repeatedly cited “the guys from New York” as calling the shots on Superblock.
It’s the New Yorkers who have insisted that their business model requires that 19 of 22 buildings on the Superblock be demolished in part or full, so that new buildings can accommodate “big-box” national retailers with large floorplates.
But so far the developer has not yet signed a single tenant, raising a question about how economically viable the project is when downtown Baltimore is suffering from a glut of retail space.
Originally, the project was to include 64,500 square feet of retail, 225 apartment units and a 170-space parking deck.
At the height of the real-estate boom in 2007, the group resubmitted plans for nearly five times more retail (312,595 square feet), 400 apartment units and a 925-space deck. That was downsized last fall to 184,372 square feet of retail, 260 apartments, 725 parking spaces and a 125-room “boutique hotel.”
Last week, Pope said the boutique hotel was up in the air, and that the developer was now weighing whether to pursue office space or residential lofts in lieu of a hotel.
In other words, except for hoping to attract retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond and a grocery store like Whole Foods, the developers have nothing concrete about the actual mix of retailers for Lexington Square– and no more grip on potential demand from hotel or office users.
Equally unclear is precisely which buildings they want to demolish. Over the course of the last seven years, the group has slated 21 of 22 buildings (all owned by the city) for demolition.
Last week, Pope told CHAP that only the Brager-Gutman Building on Park Ave. would be retained in full, but later amended that to include Howard Furniture and Paul’s Luncheon, a small building on Park Ave.
That leaves 19 of 22 buildings to be demolished in full or with only the street facade left.
History “Floating” above Modern Facades?
The public controversy over demolition has centered on Read’s. Civil rights activists say the full building should be preserved to commemorate the sit-in at the store’s lunch counter that played a part in the national civil rights movement.
The developer has only agreed to retain parts of two street walls of the building.
Their “conceptual” plan, unveiled last week, would preserve the upper floors of the Art-Deco facade, but the ground level would feature all-glass display windows in keeping with modern retail design.
This led Ronald Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance, to question how a historic building would look “floating” above a glass base. “I don’t think Baltimore needs another token example of preservation that winds up looking silly,” he said.
Other historic facades would get similar treatment. Preservationists say this approach is a direct violation of a written agreement in 2001 between then-Mayor Martin O’Malley and the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) calling for the full restoration of as many as 17 buildings. They also say the approach risks the inadvertent collapse of the old facades.
How Many Jobs – and When?
Seeking to portray preservationists as out-of-touch, if not elitist, advocates of the project, including Rawlings-Blake, say that historic preservation must be balanced with job opportunities for city residents.
In a press release, the mayor said that 650 construction jobs would be jeopardized if the preservation panels did not swiftly approve the developer’s plans.
The pastors’ group that accompanied the mayor said they backed the project because it would spur the creation of new jobs. “There are many nameless, faceless people who are hoping this project will move forward” because they need jobs, said the Rev. Sheridan Todd Yeary, senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church.
But again without leases or financing in place, it would take the developer at least another year, if not longer, for construction to start and jobs to materialize.
Preservationists argue that the best way to move the Superblock past dilapidation and limbo is to restore the old buildings. Preservation-based redevelopment, they say, creates more construction jobs than new building construction.
Their position was endorsed by the Urban Land Institute, which said last December that Lexington Square Partners should come up with a plan that complies with the preservation requirements or be replaced. (Superblock had four bidders when the city originally put it out to contract; the current developer was rated “among the least desirable when viewed from a preservation standpoint” by the Maryland Historical Trust.)
The blocks along Lexington, Fayette and Howard streets once featured dozens of low-end shops and small businesses. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs when the properties were sold to the city and boarded up.
According to the mayor, the Lexington Square project would bring back “approximately 750 permanent jobs” upon completion.
This figure contrasts sharply with the estimate of “permanent employment for as many as 325 people in retail, service and management positions” made by the developer in a October 21, 2010 report to M.J. “Jay” Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.