Challenges for preservation and development in the Superblock

This is our second post in a series on the preservation and revitalization of Baltimore’s West Side. Read our first post for a quick review of the past ten years of redevelopment efforts on the West Side.

200 block West Lexington Street

One of the most significant challenges on the West Side over the past decade has been the preservation and redevelopment of the “Superblock” bounded by Lexington, Fayette, Liberty and Howard streets. These few blocks include a diverse collection of 19th and 20th century historic buildings reflecting the West Side’s past as a thriving center of downtown retail. Among the many contributing buildings within the West Side’s Market Center Historic District are the 1929 Brager-Gutman Building, the 1938 Art Deco Kresge’s Department Store, and the 1934 Read’s Drug Store to name only a few. In 2001, Baltimore City and the State of Maryland established a preservation agreement (known as the Memorandum of Agreement or MOA) that gave the Maryland Historical Trust the authority to review development proposals on the West Side. By 2003, the Baltimore Development Corporation began soliciting bids on the development of the Superblock, then selected Lexington Square Partners as the developer for the area bounded by Howard, Lexington, Park, and Fayette Streets.

Since 2004, Lexington Square Partners has submitted at least five plans for the redevelopment of the site to the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) and each time MHT has concluded that the plans do not meet the required preservation standards (Baltimore Brew covered this issue in February 2010). The most recent proposal this past November requires the partial or total demolition of 14 of 17 contributing historic buildings in the area, including the complete demolition of 9 structures, the demolition of all but facades on 5, and the full preservation of only 3 historic buildings. Despite this failure to support the preservation principles created to guide the revitalization of the West Side, just yesterday BDC received a 6-month extension to their agreement with Lexington Square Partners from the Baltimore Board of Estimates.

This is not an abstract debate between the relative merits of historic preservation and economic development. Rather, we are dedicated to successfully joining both agendas, recognizing the potential of the West Side’s historic buildings to contribute to the renewed vitality of Baltimore’s downtown. For example, the former Reads Drug Store at the corner of Lexington and Howard Streets (proposed for demolition in current plans) holds a important place in the city’s history as the site of an early sit-in protest against segregated lunch counters. Built in 1934 on the 300th anniversary of the founding of Maryland, the store features several architectural details on a Maryland theme with panels of sailing ships on the outside. At the bustling corner of Lexington Street and Howard Street, the store served as the flagship location of the Read’s chain located at the heart of Downtown. The building is perhaps most historically significant, however, for its role as a witness to Baltimore’s Civil Rights Movement. On January 20, 1955, Dean McQuay Kiah of Morgan State University, along with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and a group of Morgan students staged a sit-in at this location to protest the racial segregation of Read’s lunch counters. The sit-in led to the desegregation of the entire Read’s chain throughout the region and helped provide a model that guided later and better known student-led sit-ins in places like Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. These exceptional and irreplaceable buildings contribute to the rich architectural heritage of the West Side and should be seen clearly not as barriers but as assets to continued development.

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About Eli

Eli Pousson started as a Field Officer at Baltimore Heritage in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in October 2009. Prior to moving to Baltimore, Eli worked for the DC Office of Historic Preservation and completed graduate work in anthropology and historic preservation at the University of Maryland College Park. Eli continues to work with the Lakeland Community Heritage Project and other heritage organizations in Prince George’s County, Maryland.