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Neighborhoodsby Klaus Philipsen9:13 amOct 8, 20120

That giant sucking sound on Baltimore’s Westside

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

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

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

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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