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Opponents file new lawsuit against Superblock plan

Opponents of the proposed Superblock redevelopment have filed another lawsuit to stop the project, this time alleging approved demolition plans would violate a historic preservation agreement.

The lawsuit says J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, exceeded his powers last December when he gave conditional approval to the $150 million project’s plans, which call for the demolition of 14 of 17 historic buildings at the site.

The complaint seeks to throw out Little’s letter of approval and alleges he wrote it only after being pressured by M.J. “Jay” Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which is leading the development efforts.

“Mr. Brodie, for Baltimore City, has maneuvered to gain…bogus approval for development of the Superblock that spurns statutorily and contractually mandated objectives of preservation in favor of the developer’s ‘non-negotiable business model,’” the complaint says.

Approval of the plan by the trust, which has a memorandum of agreement with the city over the development site, was considered the last hurdle before development of the site could begin.

Little’s Dec. 22 approval letter was written six days after he attended a meeting organized by Brodie to “discuss the Superblock proposal” pending before the trust, according to the lawsuit.

The meeting “placed a foul scent of duress” on the approval of the plan put forth by developer Lexington Square Partners LLP, according to the lawsuit.

Reached by telephone on Thursday, Brodie said he had not seen the complaint but confirmed the December meeting was held.

“It was an extended conversation, meaning that it went on for a couple of hours, at the end of which Mr. Little said, ‘This is not the gold standard, but I’m giving it a passing grade,’” Brodie said. “He followed up by saying, ‘I’m going to write you a letter, you won’t like everything I write in the letter, but it’s going to be a passing grade.’”

Little referred questions Monday to Shelley S. Wasserman, assistant attorney general with the state Department of Planning, which houses the trust. Wasserman did not return calls seeking comment. City Solicitor George A. Nilson also did not return calls seeking comment about the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in Baltimore City Circuit Court on behalf of an entity controlled by Peter G. Angelos, who owns an office building adjacent to the site. M. Albert Figinski, a lawyer in Angelos’ firm representing 120 West Fayette Street LLLP, was out of the office on Thursday and unavailable for comment.

Opponents, including the Angelos entity, first filed suit against the Superblock in February 2007, challenging the selection of the developer and the lack of a competitive bidding process.

The lawsuit was initially thrown out by a judge who ruled that 120 West Fayette Street lacked standing to bring it, a decision reversed by the Court of Appeals. Back in the circuit court in August 2009, the judge ruled that the Superblock transaction was a land sale, not a public works project that required competitive bidding.

The Court of Appeals upheld that ruling last year, but refused to consider a separate claim that the proposed development would violate the city’s agreement with the Maryland Historical Trust. The high court said that count was not ripe for review because the plans had not yet been approved.

The suit filed this week renews that claim, based in part on Little’s approval letter.

The historical trust’s board had asked Little to rescind his approval earlier this year but dropped the challenge in March after the state attorney general’s office weighed in on the matter.

Plans for the Superblock call for a mix of retail, office and residential space plus a 120-room boutique hotel on property bordered by Park Avenue and Fayette, Lexington and Howard streets.

The developer in March agreed to preserve two exterior walls of the former Read’s Drug Store, site of a 1955 civil rights sit-in that has become a rallying point among preservationists.

Last week, though, the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation gave the entire building temporary historical landmark status, meaning it cannot be torn down for at least six months. The decision has been criticized by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.

Daily Record business writer Melody Simmons contributed to this article.