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Report supports razing Mechanic

A private engineering study has found widespread corrosion in the parking garage beneath the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre due in part to stray electrical currents from subway trains, according to an Owings Mills developer who commissioned the report and has applied to demolish the 45-year-old concrete building.

Howard Brown, a partner in the development team One West LLC and president of David S. Brown Enterprises, said that repairs to the decay in the parking garage could cost more than $1.1 million — and even more to shore up the theater building if a retail and residential tower were built above it as originally planned in the $200 million redevelopment.

It is the latest step in the ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown Baltimore’s central business district by adding residential housing options, an endeavor that at times has sparked debate over historic preservation.

The debate over the future of the Mechanic is ramping up this summer, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Monday said she supported razing the structure.

The theater has been placed on a “special list” of city structures by the Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, a city review panel, and provided limited protection, including a six-month postponement of possible alterations to so alternatives may be sought.

Brown, who filed for the demolition permit in late April, is expected to present the study to CHAP at its Aug. 14 meeting.

“Every 10 minutes or so a measure of stray currents are coming into the building from the subway train,” Brown said of the findings by William E. Carnes, of Annapolis Junction-based Hillis-Carnes Engineering Associates Inc. The subway opened in 1983.

The “stray” currents from the Metro, Brown said, have deteriorated the concrete façade of the garage and possibly other buildings downtown on the subway’s route and “caused significant, irreversible damage to the Mechanic Theatre and parking garage structure rendering new improvements infeasible without significant reconstruction,” Carnes’ June 8 report said.

“It is our professional opinion that significant areas of the garage structure would have to be completely rebuilt to rectify the damage that has occurred due to the deterioration.”

In the meantime, Brown and his partners filed a permit application for the Mechanic Theatre’s demolition in late April.

He said they plan to build two residential towers with 600 market rate apartments and 150,000 square feet of retail at Charles and Baltimore streets, but specific designs were incomplete.

The move has sparked debate over whether the Mechanic, which opened in 1967 and was once hailed as part of the city’s Charles Center renaissance, should be torn down. The 1,600-seat, ultra-modern theater was built in an architectural style known as Brutalism and has been vacant for eight years.

Johns W. Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, and Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, said Monday they reject any efforts to demolish the theater to make way for redevelopment.

“Our position is that it’s an important modern structure that should be preserved,” Gearhart said. “We recognize that it’s controversial, and people seem to love to hate the Mechanic.”

Hopkins said: “We support preserving the Mechanic Theatre and believe it is possible to preserve the signature architecture and revitalize this important downtown intersection with compatible new construction.”

Rawlings-Blake, who met with Brown last week to discuss the redevelopment, said through a spokesman Monday she supported the developers.

“The Mayor fully supports redevelopment of the Mechanic Theatre site which has been vacant for years,” said Ryan O’Doherty, the spokesman, in an email. “She looks forward to advancing significant new investment in residential development downtown to further her goal to grow the city’s population. With its prime location and immediate proximity to major transit links, the project has great potential and will help strengthen the central business district as a vibrant and attractive place to live.”

J. Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, agreed.

“We are 100 percent in favor of the demolition of the Mechanic,” Fowler said Monday. “It turns its back onto Charles Street, you don’t know where its entrance is. It is the wrong building to have as our signature building. This is our No. 1 development project downtown. It’s the lynchpin.”

Brown said last week he hoped CHAP would move quickly to approve the demolition permit, and that the study would help convince the panel to do so.

“We’ve complied with requests from CHAP and it is irresponsible for them to drag this process out,” he said. “Timing is big in the real estate business.”