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That giant sucking sound on Baltimore’s Westside

An architect and urban planner argues it’s time to pull the plug on the Superblock

superblock 1

Shuttered stores at midday in Baltimore’s “Superblock.”

Photo by: Klaus Philipsen

Every day that passes with The Superblock as nothing but an assembly of shuttered dead space is increasing this weight around the necks of all who invested in the west side, do business there, live there or shop there.

The developers have had enough chances to show us that they can fit the square peg of “big box” into the round hole of Baltimore’s small-parceled historic west side. We’re coming on eight years now and it hasn’t happened.

It is time for a new approach: smaller, more incremental, phased and more attentive to the existing structures. Let’s not give Lexington Square Partners LLC another extension. We can’t afford it.

I made the above comments on a recent Brew story revealing the city’s plan for yet another extension, and the editors asked me to expand on them in an op-ed.

Expand I have. Forgive the length but there’s a lot of history behind this sorry saga. I should know, I witnessed much of it. Here, with some minimal editing, is what I wrote and posted on my blog “Community Architect.”

How Big is Too Big?

With a name like this, it should have been clear from the start that the Superblock project wouldn’t lead to anything good. After all, “superblock” is a term from the ’60s describing those “urban renewal” atrocities where several city blocks were cleared of all people and then fused together, ignoring the traditional street-grid. Baltimore examples include the infamous public housing high-rise projects long since imploded in the wake of their failures.

Most people in Baltimore tune out now when the topic comes up. It has taken so many twists and turns that it is almost impossible to keep up with the reasons why nothing has happened down there in the Westside, in the area dubbed the Superblock.

Officials summoned the media to watch a building get demolished in the Weinberg block, near the Superblock. (Photo by Klaus Philipsen)

In 2010, reporters were summoned to watch a building get demolished in the Weinberg block, near the Superblock. (Photo by Klaus Philipsen)

I located my office in Baltimore’s Westside in 1995, thinking this area was up-and-coming. I was soon appointed to the Westside project area committee (PAC) consisting of local stakeholders. I have followed the Superblock saga attentively ever since, and now have a thick folder just for it. Also, I have to pass through its festering blight every few days.

Few people are old enough to remember the glory days of the “Westside.” Back then the area west of Charles Street was simply called “downtown” and was Baltimore’s main shopping district. At Christmas time little kids pressed their cold noses against the storefronts of the three big department stores at Howard and Lexington, each with more beautiful holiday decorations.

Although I am old enough, I know about Christmas at Howard and Lexington only from Gilbert Sandler’s “Baltimore Stories” since as a small child I pressed my cold nose against plate glass in downtown Stuttgart, Germany. Baltimore’s shopping district was mostly white; blacks were barely tolerated in the stores. We heard recently about the civil rights-inspired lunch counter protests at Read’s Drugstore on Howard Street. (This history was rediscovered when those preservationists protested the planned demolition of the store as part of the Superblock project.)

The whole thing feels like a cruel game to me so let’s go back a bit and establish what the playing field is, who the players are and what the rules are supposed to be.

The Playing Field

Due to suburbanization and the shiny new malls sprouting in the green fields outside the Beltway, by the early ’90s the Westside was down on its knees. It was so diminished that even one of the big landlords in the area, the Weinberg Foundation, realized that something needed to be done.

All the buildings they had acquired there now stood empty and created much blight along Howard Street. They said they would use the glitzy new “Harlem USA” as a model as for a revitalization of their Westside holdings. Just like in the’ 60s, wholesale demolition was envisioned to achieve it.

Example of the beautiful facades in the former garment district of the Westside. This building is vacant with a "pop-up gallery" populating the first floor as a temporary use. (Photo by Klaus Philipsen)

An example of the beautiful facades in the former garment district of the Westside. This building is vacant with a “pop-up gallery” populating the first floor as a temporary use. (Photo by Klaus Philipsen)

Yet this time, preservation had gained strength in Baltimore and folks were not so easily fooled by the argument that “a clean slate” is the best approach. Johns Hopkins of Baltimore Heritage and a few others photographed facades all over the Westside, looked up old photos and opened our eyes again to the underlying beauty of this area. They helped us appreciate the old cast-iron facades, the garment district warehouses and the many storefronts now covered by the muck of cheap panels, awnings and signs.

It became clear that, in spite of all the decay, the Westside was an architectural treasure trove. Around 1998, several preservationists and urbanists like myself convinced the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) that not the Weinberg Foundation but the City should prepare a master plan for the whole area and that preservation should be a the foundation for economic development and a renaissance of this part of downtown.

Detail from the top of the McCrory's Building, on Lexington Street. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Detail from the top of the McCrory’s Building, on Lexington Street. (Photo by Fern Shen)

This took more than good arguments to become an official policy. Pressure from the State Senate leveraging State funds for the Hippdrome Theatre yielded finally a “Memorandum of Agreement” (MOA) between the City and the Maryland Historic Trust in 2001.

The core piece of the MOA is a Westside map with three colors of buildings: “Must be preserved, should be preserved and historically insignificant.” To ensure that the Westside renaissance would follow the rules of the MOA, the PAC was created and stakeholders appointed to it.

By the time the BDC rolled out the Superblock concept in 2004, the MOA had been in place for a while. Several projects were already going forward in the area, like the big-scale mixed-use CentrePoint, across the street from the refurbished Hippodrome, which had opened the same year.

With these projects, along with the Atrium and the refurbished Stewart’s building, the area didn’t need more big-scale initiatives. In a PAC meeting on the RFP put forth by then-BDC chief M.J. “Jay” Brodie, I argued that it was time now for “a thousand points of light.” (I deliberately used this phrase from the elder president Bush, thinking it would appeal to the business-oriented folks at BDC.)

What I meant was, we need incremental, smaller investments without large-scale city intervention and the associated large-scale disruption. After all, the Weinberg Foundation still had a large project up their sleeve on the north side of Lexington Street. Obviously, I did not prevail and the RFP was issued.

The Players and the Game

The main players in the drama of the Superblock are the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), Lexington Square Partners, displaced merchants and a famous lawyer whose Spanish meaning of his name betrays his aggressive stance and his Greek heritage.

What about the citizens of Baltimore? Well, they are mostly spectators since a real meaningful public debate about the Westside or the Superblock never happened.

Brian Greenan, the mayor's Westside coordinator, and then-BDC chief Jay Brodie. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Brian Greenan, the mayor’s Westside coordinator, and then-BDC chief Jay Brodie. (Photo by Fern Shen)

As for the game, one could be a cynic and conclude that the City can do whatever the City wants – like taking properties, adding or deleting parcels or extending the deadlines time and again. They set up favorable rules when, through persuasion or condemnation, they acquired all the properties in the area bounded by Liberty, Fayette, Howard and Lexington streets.

The issuance of a BDC “Request for Proposals” (RFPs) is when the real play begins. Developers get a deadline to submit a proposal with a general description of what they intend to build, financial information and their qualifications to do those type of projects.

Since the BDC decides who gets to move on to the next round, selection criteria are focused on economic viability of the proposals and the developers themselves and less on urban design or historic preservation – which the BDC is not qualified to evaluate. At the end of the second round the winning team gets all the game-pieces (parcels) inside the boundaries of the Superblock if they can convince BDC that they are “for real.” But settlement of the properties doesn’t happen until all cards are on the table. That’s the theory.

Where are we today?

More than seven years after Lexington Square Partners was selected as the winner, not a shovel has been turned, no cranes, no construction, no jobs, no taxes and certainly, no vibrancy.

Instead, ever since the Lexington group was picked as the chosen developer in 2004, the Superblock has been sitting in the heart of the Westside as a shuttered hulk, from which pigeons emanate along with the smell of mildew and rot.

In a city, energy seeks out energy and blight and neglect, well, seek out blight and neglect. Instead of being the pulsing heart of the Westside, the Superblock has become a heavy rock dragging down all the investments that were made right outside of it. Just ask David Hillman of Southern Management who invested, largely without big government hand-outs, in the old Hechts Department store to the west of the Superblock (Now the Atrium Apartments) and the empty former BGE Headquarters to the east, now the 39 West Lexington Apartments.

Young Cho and her husband have owned this building on W. Lexington since 1982. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Every day, Lexington Street storeowners Young Cho and her husband “pray that stores will come back.” (Photo by Fern Shen)

Of course, with the prospect of new development being imminent, no business wants to remain in the redevelopment area. Any hold-out waiting out the situation would certainly not invest in their property or building, not when it will be taken, demolished or otherwise become just a game-piece in the plan of the selected master-developer.

So, starting around 2004, when the outline of BDC game-plan became clear, a big sucking sound went through the heart of the Westside and it sucked out all those small local businesses. They went out of the block in question, sometimes out of the area or the city and in some cases out of business entirely.

The idea was that after a year or two the developer would be ready to build and the grand plans would begin to take shape. Small loss (a few unlucky pushed-our small business-owners) but a big gain for the city and the community. That was the idea . . .

When Lexington Square hired a well-known out-of-town architect (Cooper Robertson) and showed impressive and courageous plans, I even wondered if my Bush allegory was, indeed, too small-minded. (Even though it was immediately clear that Lexington Square didn’t have much preservation in mind and violated the MOA left and right.)

Shuttered stores facing Howard Street are . . .

Shuttered stores facing Howard Street are . . .

But the famous architect was soon fired and the trench war with the preservationists began. The law offices of Peter Angelos filed one lawsuit and appeal after another and delayed things with an array of reasons. The law suits hit the project like the spray from a shotgun – hurting but not stopping it.

Lexington Square kept moving forward with baby steps towards more preservation (the Reads façade is now supposed to be saved). For a while, the developer’s willingness to spend considerable amounts of money on design fooled me into believing that they may know things I don’t and somehow pull this project off – big scale, big retail and all.

. . . not transit-oriented development. (Both photos by Klaus Philipsen)

. . . not transit-oriented development. (Both photos by Klaus Philipsen)

But then 2006 and 2007 passed and nothing happened. And remember, those were years before the real estate bubble burst. No surprise, then, that after the bubble burst, there was no progress either.

Near the end of 2010, the Mayor paid the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to bring in a team of experts to spend a good part of a week assessing why the Westside was still languishing. At the end of their analysis they invited the Mayor and many city big shots to hear their findings.

The ULI experts – among them former mayors, professionals and economists – had interviewed dozens of stakeholders, toured the area and spoken with numerous decision makers. Their number one recommendation: make the Superblock developer follow through or throw him out by Christmas 2010.

Schoolchildren protest the demolition of the Read's Drugstore building.

Schoolchildren protest the demolition of the Read’s Drugstore building. (Photo by Sarah Adams)

Much to my delight, the ULI panel said it was time for “thousand flowers to bloom.” (Although this term came from Mao and not Bush, it essentially confirmed what I had thought all along.)

Needless to say, the developer was not fired. Although the Mayor had paid for ULI to come, somehow she didn’t like the suggestions, at least not the one about the Superblock. Christmas 2010 came and went. So did Christmas 2011 and the development team not only got one but two additional extensions, in spite of an ever larger chorus of discontent ranging from local and state preservationists to Councilman Kraft, the AIA and the PAC.

And this is how we came to today and yet another request for extension. This time, though, the city council may not let the BDC get away with it. Tough questions were asked about financing and it looks quite like the Lexington Square group is the proverbial emperor with no clothes. They were found to be naked, devoid of financing and devoid of tenants for their super project on the Superblock.

What is to be done?

My feelings about the Superblock and the proposed development of large chain stores topped by a residential highrise have gone through many phases, too.

But by 2010 I agreed with ULI that enough is enough. And today, almost two years later, I think that almost no strategy can be worse than to give this development yet another extension.

Time “to let many flowers bloom,” to cut the Superblock up into smaller parcels and offer them to a phased set of smaller developments. It’s time to get serious about preserving the historic buildings facing Lexington and Howard streets and rehabilitate them, one by one with retail that is preferably locally owned and catering to specialty needs, like the famous Hippodrome Hatters store.

A larger project could be realized on the site of the former Trailways bus station, since it has already been demolished with City money. Maybe the tall residential tower the original developer envisioned there isn’t such a bad idea – let’s find someone to build it and bring more residents to the Westside.

Let glitz and chain stores happen on Pratt Street, the Inner Harbor and in Harbor East. “Shop local” should not be limited to food and restaurants, it should be a strategy for retail. And the Westside, now an arts and entertainment district, should be the place where we make it happen.

- Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, is a Baltimore architect, planner and urban designer and the president of ArchPlan Inc. He blogs at archplanbaltimore.blogspot.com/, from which this article was adapted.

A vacant city-owned building on Lexington Street, part of the Superblock. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Vacant city-owned building on Lexington St. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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  • Charming Bohemian

    Micro-lending works all over the world in developing community and infrastructure.  Why wouldnt it work in west baltimore?  Or any other run down part of any city?

    http://www.archdaily.com/276433/bd-bacata-the-worlds-first-crowdfunded-skyscraper/

    Baltimore needs to be given back to its residents.

  • Leroy

    P.S. The Faust Building, featured in this photo: http://www.baltimorebrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/superblock-kp.jpg is occupied by 1) The State of Maryland 2) The University of Maryland and 3) EMP Collective (my 501(c)3 arts org that’s been there for over 1 year). While I agree the area is need of serious overhaul, please be careful when casting a wide net.

  • Mark Adams

    People who don’t have money don’t shop. The “Superblock” is destined to fail unless the city addresses the scarcity of employment for the middle class.

  • Archphips

    I stand corrected. D center then on Saratoga Street, Gallery Influx (and others) were recipients of the Downtown Partneship “Operation Storefront” grants starting in April 2011. At that time the Faust building was empty. Since then the EMP Collective moved in and others as well. Since the building is not in the Superblock the point of the photo is to show the beauty of the facade. Your correction additionally makes clear how the Westside has momentum and adaptive reuse can work on a building by building scale. My point is that the Westside is hindered and not helped by the state of the Superblock. In no way would I want to give the impression that the whole Westside is without progress. I still believe that the area has a bright future.

  • Gerald Neily

    OK, excellent article. Klaus, thank you for “outing” Archphips. Let’s get into prescriptive mode. You think there’s a “bright future”. Jamie Hunt thinks it’s going to be a “yuppie haven”. But Mark Adams points out the laws of economics which afflict huge swaths of the city. Thinking small and incremental is a good start but Baltimore is full of failed small businesses (shopsteading?) and architectural casualties. Why is this one different? Or maybe if it’s not different, we should try to lower the stakes in this area and focus on changing the city’s overall tax and business policies rather than picking winners of the “next hot area” sweepstakes. (My recent pick of Central Avenue was too easy.)

    I contend the west side physical problems go all the way back to the Charles Center gigantism and the eastward and southward downtown drift ever since. As Antero Pietila points out, the social problems go back way before that. The rampant gigantism is as alive as ever in Harbor Point, State Center, the proposed “streetcar on steroids” Red Line, the mega-convention arena and the Grand Prix. But I guess the city has at least backed off on their super-duper Pratt Street retail plan, either as a complement or diversion of the big boxes. The next big event may be the Social Security Administration’s impending abandonment of the west side. The west side is thus a victim of its overall environment. So what next?

  • Cwals99

    Thank you for this comprehensive look at the  West Side Development strategy.  What we are seeing in Baltimore is development driven by national corporate interests and as such the Harbor East wins over the West.  I think that is to the West’s and the city’s advantage as you push for the far better strategy of smaller tract development.  What we are seeing in Baltimore driven by the BDC is Manhatten dreaming, centered on sky-scape and international presence.  All of this means sterile, pre-packaged architecture and business.
    One only has to look at the arguments over the Mechanic to see this provincial vision.

    Cities across the country are being captured by these national developers trying to affect their own vision.   Lift local/regional businesses and inflect cultural flavor into the city (I mean other than a restaurant that serves Thai food) by those thousand points of light.  can you imagine what Lexington Market could be made to look in that regard?  This country is tired of global institutions and even as our eternal incumbents try to force it upon us, we still want our communities and businesses to reflect our local personalities!

  • Carol Ott

    Instead of focusing on overpriced, poorly built condos…and retail the city can’t support — how about letting folks develop the Howard Street corridor on their own, organically?  The owners of these buildings have been hanging onto them, dreaming of that pot of gold — it’s not coming.  Either force their hand, and make them bring the buildings to code, or place them in receivership and sell them to people who could use them as live/work spaces.  No nonprofits, no storefront churches, rehab centers, cell phone stores, etc. – there are plenty of middle class folks, black and white, who would love the opportunity to be part of a revitalization effort from the ground up, and Howard Street is the perfect area for that.

    It’s time to stop dreaming about the 10,000 new families and start giving opportunities to the families who currently live here. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/doctorjamesmacarthur A F James MacArthur

    Thank you for this excellent article. This is the first time I’ve seen the entire issue and the background of its current problems laid out in one place. It’s pretty sad the mayor paid a consulting group to find out what to do, then flatly ignored their suggestions.

    This city would do well to let go of delusional pipe dreams. Carol Ott said it best when she said “It’s time to stop dreaming about the 10,000 new families and start giving opportunities to the families who currently live here.” Sadly, I don’t think our current administration believes in working with what you got. To them, there’s always the next big thing around the corner.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EKMWHINIGSIZGS3QAIXGTUQKJA treje

    Amen to that!  Maybe you should run the Planning Dept!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EKMWHINIGSIZGS3QAIXGTUQKJA treje

    Amen to that!  This is just common sense.  If a contractor hadn’t fixed your toilet in a month, you’d probably call another contractor.  This has been almost a decade.  None of us would be allowed to slack off for that long, why are these guys any exception?  There’s more interest in the Westside now, and it looks a lot better than in 2004.  Divide it up and rebid each parcel separately.  Maybe it’s more work legally and administratively, but it just needs to happen.

  • Baltimoreplaces

    It is amazing that a large scale development project could cause so much destruction.  I often wonder what the missed opportunity costs and stagnation (decline) price have been for this project? 

    • JS

       @19567318990a175906bc6f560ac35fe7:disqus : if it’s “destruction,” perhaps you mean destruction in slow motion. Most of the Superblock is being destroyed through simple neglect, and I wonder about the eventual outcome of this “redevelopment.” I got in the preservation game only a few years back, so I am glad Mr. Philipsen was able to share this bit of history.

      I’m not a planner, so I hope these observations won’t be too naive. When I first moved to Baltimore about 26 years ago, the Westside shopping area still had a few department stores–I remember Epstein’s and a few others. The other stores were mostly small, independent businesses run mostly by Asian and African American shopkeepers. It was vibrant, but perhaps not vibrant in the way that the Mayor or the BDC might have liked. Why were these owners bought out? Would it have been better to give them support to improve their properties, and to give other small business owners incentives to move to the area? Am I missing something here–could the planners please weigh in on this?

  • cbroome

    I can’t believe this has been going on for around decade now.  The only time I hear about it is from the Reeds protests, and I guess they’ve grown more and more infrequent. 

    • Gerald Neily

      It really started in earnest way before that – 1976 would be a good benchmark, Cbroome. The city and Greater Baltimore Committee were already plotting then, documented in a detailed report by Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd that I just grabbed between innings of the Oriole game. It proposed a very grandiose indoor Lexington retail mall that extended from the north end of Charles Center and the Lexington Market subway station, neither of which was built yet. Soon after that, Hochshild Kohn burnt down and the death march was underway. Yikes, now old Raul Ibanez has just hit his second homer walking off in the 12th batting for ARod.

  • http://baltomatic.com Lars Peterson

    I first learned about this monstrous plan a couple years ago when I was looking for potential locations for a community bicycle repair workshop.  I turned off Park Avenue onto Clay street, and saw exactly what I was looking for: commercial space on a quiet side street with safe and easy bicycle access, a loading dock, storefront, and lots of room. It was perfect.  But why was it empty?
    After a  little research, a story started to unfold, and it was not pretty. from the MD Daily Record:

    November 15, 2006: “The Baltimore City Board of Estimates deleted an item from its agenda yesterday that would have condemned properties on the city’s West Side where the New York Fashions clothing store operates.”

    November 17, 2006: “Superblock tiff leaves fashion store in limbo”

    March 29, 2007: “Baltimore store owner on losing side of landswap deal between city and the Weinberg Foundation”

    June 7, 2007: “A defiant property owner on Baltimore’s West Side could derail the city’s attempt to carry out a land swap deal it has with the Weinberg Foundation and further delay redevelopment of the superblock.”…”

    Five years later, the dust has settled, the million-dollar checks to P&J Contracting have been cashed, and all that’s left is a grassy field entirely enclosed by a fence. We have given these public officials authority over public funds and supervision of private land, and they have taken both of them and created little of value to anyone. I am dumbfounded by their lack of vision– and by vision, I am referring to the ability to see what was right in front of their faces.

    For more pictures of this part of town, see my Flickr photoset “33 years of Failure”

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/larspeterson/sets/72157624754485636/with/4575371748/

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