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Mechanic’s fate causes things to get testy at meeting

Things got quite testy when the fate of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre came up during the monthly meeting of the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel on Thursday.

At stake is the future of the Mechanic building, at the corner of South Charles Street and West Baltimore Street. Owings Mills developer Howard Brown is seeking to raze the vacant theater to make way for a mega residential and retail development that would include a pair of towers and street-level shopping.

But the Mechanic is on a “special list” of city landmarks that give it limited protection from the wrecking ball — for now.

The city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which compiled the list, will hold an Aug. 14 hearing on a permit application to demolish the 45-year-old theater that closed in 2004.

If CHAP members vote to deny the demolition permit, the new development plans will be frozen for six months.

In the meantime, Brown is moving forward with design plans for the $200 million redevelopment.

He attended the UDARP meeting and sat patiently as Washington Architect Shalom Baranes described the preliminary designs for two modern 30-story towers to be built in an L-shaped configuration with three floors of retail at street level. A new five-level parking garage would replace the existing two-level garage.

UDARP members peppered Baranes with questions on everything from the new building’s relationship to nearby Hopkins Plaza to ensuring a wide pedestrian and commuter sidewalk out front to the viability of commitment by national retail chains in Baltimore’s market.

Then the fireworks began.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, who opposes the proposed demolition, told the panel it should solicit public comment on the plan, something that was thwarted Thursday as the UDARP meeting began and it was announced the meeting was dedicated solely to design presentation.

“It is an important historic property,” Gearhart said, adding a previous agreement by UDARP to include reuse of the Mechanic Theatre building with a tower added around it “had been sidestepped.”

“I urge you to table it until the landmark status has been addressed,” Gearhart said.

John C. Murphy, a prominent Baltimore attorney who has long advocated for historic preservation downtown, told the UDARP it had been punked by Brown.

“You’re being manipulated,” Murphy said. “You are being asked to approve this [design] at the same time the building is protected. You shouldn’t be considering it at all because the building is on the special list.”

Murphy chastised top city officials for failing to hold a hearing on a recent recommendation to place the Mechanic on the city’s landmark list, which would give it lasting protection, calling the Mechanic “a world-class building.” An earlier effort by CHAP to place the theater on the landmark list was rejected by the Baltimore Planning Commission in 2008.

“As architects and designers, tell the city this is a notable building,” Murphy advised the UDARP, whose members sat silently.

After the hour and a half session, Brown stood in the city planning offices and said the debate was part of the process.

“They’re going to go through their process and drag us out six months,” Brown said. “As far as I’m concerned, they will affect the battle and lose the war.”

Stay tuned.


Century Center at Retreat Farms, a 182-acre business and technology park in Walkersville near Frederick, will be marketed by CBRE in partnership with Fitzgerald Realty Group.

The park has a mile and a half of waterfront because it is located near the scenic Monocacy River. A total of 26,000 new trees have been planted in a reforestation easement.

It has multiple zoning classifications including research, office, warehousing and light assembly. Officials say the Century Center will sell industrial lots from two to 80 acres in size. Century Center is located near Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research and Fort Detrick’s newly expanded bio-defense campus.


Calling all women with hammers and power tools. This Saturday, beginning at 8 a.m., women volunteers are invited to join Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake’s construction staff, local leaders and community partners to launch the 12th Annual Women Build project. The effort will take place at Orchard Ridge Community, 400 Maple Shade Dr., and is part of a nationwide initiative promoting leadership and advocacy among Habitat for Humanity’s female supporters.

The parcel on Maple Shade Drive in the city’s northeast community will become the home of Ronnette Owens, a single mother of three who will purchase the house after its completion in the fall. In order to qualify for the program, Ronnette will spend more than 300 hours volunteering at Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake.


TIDBITS: Get ready: The groundbreaking for Canton Crossing, a 32-store retail and restaurant development on the city’s chic eastern waterfront, will take place this month. Already inked are leases for a Harris Teeter market and a Target. The development is expected to open in October 2013 … A report this week by the Associated General Contractors of America said June construction spending in increased to a 2½-year high. “The June spending gains come on top of upward revisions to May and April totals, reinforcing the notion that private construction is now growing consistently,” Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist, said in a statement. “Even more encouraging, the improvement is showing up in a wide range of residential and nonresidential categories.” … David S. Brown Enterprises recently broke ground in Howard County on a $6.5 million, 36,000-square-foot multi-purpose school building at Linwood Center, a private special education school and residential program for individuals living with autism and related developmental disabilities. The center will be located on the grounds of the existing school on Martha Bush Drive in Ellicott City. It is expected to be completed in September 2013.