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New plan to raze Mechanic

A local group is seeking to demolish the 45-year-old Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and replace it with two 30-story towers that would add 600 market-rate apartments to center city, a 150,000-square-foot retail complex and an underground parking garage.

The $150 million project at Baltimore and Charles streets would commence this year — if hurdles are cleared with the city’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation.

CHAP placed the concrete and glass, modern structure on its Special List in August 2004, which deemed the Mechanic Theatre architecturally significant to the city. Its style has been described as “brutalism.”

The move is the latest in an ongoing debate over the theater’s fate. In 2008, the Baltimore Planning Commission voted to deny landmark status to the structure, a direct contradiction to a vote by CHAP, which voted to recommend the designation.

The latest round, a filing Friday to demolish the building for redevelopment, means the issue will go back before CHAP within six months.

“CHAP could hold us up for six months before they respond,” said Howard Brown, a partner in the development group OneWest LLC and president of David S. Brown Enterprises, the Owings Mills-based developer that will manage the property.

“We would like to move forward immediately. This is the only obstacle to us moving forward. The market is right.”

Brown has been planning a redevelopment at the Mechanic site for three years, and said he originally had planned to use the existing theater that closed in 2004 into the plans and build retail around it.

That vision, he said Monday, had changed.

“I think the building is functionally and physically obsolete,” Brown said. “Trying to utilize the existing theater is not marketable. It was built as a theater; it’s tough to make a theater into a retail facility. There’s a lot of decay in the building, and we’ve come to the conclusion that we’d rather build two new towers and a new base and new parking. I think this is best.”

Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said the redevelopment would lend a long-awaited lift to downtown Baltimore’s core, which has struggled with a commercial vacancy rate of nearly 20 percent during the recession.

“This is important because of the location,” Fowler said. “It’s in the central location of downtown. This project is the glue that will hold everything together downtown.”

Fowler said he expects the debate over the future of the Mechanic to revive with the filing for the demolition permit.

“The Mechanic Theatre has served its function for its time, but very few people have walked away from the building thinking that it’s an architectural wonder,” he said. “The design turns its back on the rest of the city and doesn’t help us in any way to create a lively street experience. I believe it’s an anti-urban structure.”

The partnership recently put out a report that said the downtown occupancy is 97 percent, making it the city’s fastest-growing neighborhood.

Fowler said the developers had worked with city officials for years on the redesign of the Mechanic, which originally opened in 1967 as part of the city’s downtown renaissance centered on the development of 33-acre Charles Center a half-century ago.

“OneWest, David S. Brown, and Arrow Parking have worked on this plan with Baltimore city officials and the community for several years, making multiple revisions based on the feedback they have received,” Fowler said. “With that important due diligence behind them, we support beginning the construction as soon as possible so that this important project can move forward.”

Brown said financing for the development is favorable because of the potential for downtown apartment leasing.

“There will be no issue going in and getting financing for this,” he said. “At this stage in the game, we ought to go ahead and just do this.”

The 1,614-seat Mechanic was closed just as the newly renovated Hippodrome Theatre opened in 2004 nearby at 12 N. Eutaw St. The Mechanic, located at the former site of The Baltimore Sun building, was sold in 2005 for $6 million to Melvin and Benjamin Greenwald.