Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

City’s architectural panel endorses new Superblock design

A city panel endorsed a new design for the $150 million Superblock development that maintains two exterior walls of the former Read’s Drugs store, site of a historic 1955 lunch counter sit-in and civil rights protest by students from Morgan State University.

The vote Tuesday by the Baltimore Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation means Lexington Square Partners LLC, the project’s developers, can proceed — but the panel mandated that final design plans must be presented at a public meeting for ultimate approval.

The new design presented by Bailey Pope, senior vice president for the Atlanta-based Dawson Co., one of the developers, also included demolition of an uncertain number of historic buildings on the Superblock.

The panel voted to require Pope to return by the end of 2011 with more detailed design plans and project financing details before permitting can proceed. In addition, CHAP members stressed that no buildings in the Superblock area can be demolished before all financing and designs are complete.

The CHAP vote came after four hours of presentations and public testimony for and against the Superblock development.

CHAP Member Larry Gibson, who this year staunchly opposed demolition of the Read’s Drugs site, reconsidered and made a motion to move the project forward.

“I do not like this plan — I don’t agree with the economic premise and think it’s inconsistent with the strategic plan [of the West Side]… nevertheless, I intend to move that we approve,” Gibson said.

“CHAP is Johnny-come-lately to the Superblock process,” he added, saying the Maryland Historical Trust “fumbled the ball” in December when Director Rodney Little sent a letter of approval for the Superblock project, despite an agreement by the trust’s board to oppose it based on the historic significance of multiple buildings located on the block.

Little’s letter was sent without the consent or knowledge of the MHT board, said Gibson, a member of the MHT board.

“Ever since [Little’s MHT letter of approval], everyone has been scrambling to put the genie back in the lamp,” Gibson said. “Today we have heard pleas from people in the adjoining area that something has to be done. I’m not prepared to tell the whole city to push back for three years on the development, because that’s what it will take to re-bid it.”

Helena Hicks, a CHAP member who took part in the sit-in at Read’s, voted against the motion to approve the design.

“Those buildings are not only vulnerable, but the vote has ignored the aspect of civil rights history in Baltimore,” she said after the meeting. “It means they have ignored the African-American significance in the city.”

Pope told CHAP that the developers could not guarantee that they would preserve the decayed interior of the old Read’s.

“We cannot commit to restoring what was there but we will not take away what is there,” he said. “There will be no diminution of historic integrity” in the building near the corner of Lexington and Howard streets, where Baltimore’s old shopping district used to be located.

Pope said developers had pledged to establish a commemorative display on the site to “explain the heritage” of the 1955 sit-in and establish internships for Morgan State students to help on the project. The developers also plan to establish a scholarship fund for students at Morgan State.

Such promises did not deter Lisa Doyle, a preservationist who testified that all buildings should be kept and renovated in the Superblock.

“To tear them down means a total loss of the integrity and character” of the area, she said.