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After protest, board rejects Superblock plan

An advisory board to the city’s Department of Planning Thursday rejected an elaborate design for the Superblock after local residents and officials protested the demolition of a drug store that was the scene of a civil rights-era sit-in.

Members of the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel turned down the schematics of the massive, $150 million project after a three-hour public meeting marked by emotional pleas to save the former Read’s Drugs building at the corner of Lexington and Howard streets.

The vote was the latest in a string of controversies over the project that has pitted preservationists against developers in the effort to convert what was once downtown’s heart of retail back to a successful commercial hub. Last month, the city’s Board of Estimates voted to grant a six-month extension to developers to fine-tune the project’s design.

Bailey T. Pope, an architect and co-developer for the project with the Atlanta-based Dawson Co., helped to craft the new design that includes a similar sized structure where the old Read’s building stands.

Pope presented a 3-D model of the design, complete with a steel and glass tower, a high-rise brick building, a parking garage and multiple smaller box-like stores ringing the block.

But the focus of the day was on one particular corner of the Superblock and saving a former drugstore from the wrecking ball.

Pope sat expressionless during the testimony and was visibly upset following the meeting. He said he learned only Saturday that the site once held a historic sit-in by angry Morgan State University students, who in 1955 protested the segregated lunch counter, and that particular fact may not even be germane to the design.

“It’s not likely there’s a difference between the events that happened there and the utility of the building,” he said of the structure, which is blighted with part of the roof missing. “We only heard very recently of the civil rights history” there.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Pope said of the vote. “But it’s part of the process. There’s education that needs to be done all around.”

Local architect Peter Fillat, who also helped craft the design, said he visited the old drugstore building over the weekend and was unable to detect where the lunch counter was located because of the blight.

“It’s a hazardous situation,” Fillat said, describing the interior as dilapidated. “There are no traces of the lunch counter. I went there specifically to see where it might have been.”

Fillat said developers planned to maintain medallions and a flag pole from the old drugstore building to add to the new structure they designed for Howard and Lexington streets.

Pope, a member of the development group, Lexington Square Partners, said the project will be revised, possibly within 30 days, and re-presented to the panel.

The Superblock project has been in the works for nearly a decade. It calls for the redevelopment of the property bordered by Park Avenue and Fayette, Lexington and Howard streets.

Plans call for 250,000 square feet of retail, 200,000 square feet of office space, 300 residential units and an 800-space garage. A 120-room boutique hotel is also planned for the block.

“We have a number of businesses interested in relocating to Baltimore, and we can start to speak with them in real terms,” Pope explained to the panel, while unveiling a colorful model of the design.

“We have received an agreement with the Maryland Historical Trust that states the design preserves the character of the West Side district.”

But local historians from the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, a city agency charged with safeguarding historic properties, told the panel they were unaware of the civil rights sit-in at Read’s Drugs when a survey of the property was taken in the 1980s.

That brought guffaws of disbelief from some in the hearing’s audience.

“Why didn’t they ask us?” said Arlene Fisher, a member of the Baltimore Heritage Board who told the UDARP members she was banned from Read’s Drugs when she was a youngster because of her race.

“At one time, we couldn’t go in there at all, and later on, we could go only one at a time,” Fisher said. “It’s an important building to leave there to understand the history of how we were involved in this city.”

Larry Gibson, a local attorney who teaches the course “Race and the Law” at the University of Maryland School of Law, made a passionate speech to the panel to retain the Read’s Drugs building.

“The national movement of the sit-in movement was in this building,” Gibson said. “This is a national treasure in this building here.”

Gibson said he and other local preservationists “fell asleep” on the issue of maintaining the old Read’s Drugs building as the Superblock planning began.

“No one thought you’d tear down this building,” he said. “This is all quite a surprise.”

Marvin “Doc” Cheatham Sr., a local civil rights leader and former head of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, agreed.

“Clearly, they didn’t do their homework,” Cheatham said, of the architects and development team. “The community needs to be involved — they have not done their due diligence.”

Cheatham said he met with Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. “Jay” Brodie this week and asked him to “slow the process down.”

“I would like to see the whole process stopped at this point,” he said. “It is a tragedy that not one city official is here today — not one elected official.”

Brodie said after the meeting the project needs further review.

“We’re going to think about what we heard today,” he said.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a local business group, was the only voice of support for the design. Fowler pledged $100,000 from the partnership to help create a tribute to the lunch counter sit-in as an offer to help move the project along.

“We are tired of the stagnation there,” Fowler said. “If the Lexington Square project does not go forward there is no guarantee something will happen with this project. An inactive corner here does nothing to commemorate the history here.”

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