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Panel votes to stall Mechanic’s demolition for at least 6 months

A city panel voted unanimously on Tuesday to stall demolition of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre until at least March 2013.

Developer David S. Brown Enterprises wants to demolish the Mechanic Theatre and build two apartment towers with nearly 100,00 square feet of retail space.

The move by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation took place after close to two hours of discussion about the fate of the Mechanic and the future of the prime location it sits on at Charles and Baltimore streets.

The site has been purchased by David S. Brown Enterprises of Owings Mills, which wants to put a $150 million redevelopment with two apartment towers and nearly 100,000 square feet of retail space where the theater stands.

Last month, CHAP voted to delay a decision on the demolition for four weeks.

That action set off a back and forth over the fate of the 45-year-old theater, which has been vacant since 2004.

CHAP first debated a motion to remove the Mechanic from a Special List of city landmarks, which would speed up demolition options by David S. Brown Enterprises. But after that was rejected, the panel began to discuss another motion to disapprove the demolition permit, which, in turn, would delay tearing the theater down for six months because CHAP does not have authority to stop the demolition of a property on the Special List.

At issue in the debate was whether the property would sit vacant for years if it is demolished and redevelopment plans were not completed.

“I am seriously worried about a vacant lot at Charles and Baltimore streets,” said CHAP member James “Buzz” Cusack, citing the lack of completed and city-approved design, construction and leasing plans.

City Planning Director Thomas Stosur told the panel that the parcel could be leveled and remain barren for a while, saying: “There is no law against an empty lot.”

Stanley Fine, attorney for the developer, said he was uncertain when the Mechanic would face the wrecking ball.

Fine said that David S. Brown Enterprises has “got a lot to do in order to get this project going” and was working toward a design and construction plan, which requires approval by the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel.

In the meantime, the developer is taking in revenue from an underground parking garage at the Mechanic site.

“We’re making money on it,” Fine said. “It’s not good business for us to demolish a building.”

The once-ultra-modern Mechanic opened as part of Baltimore’s downtown Renaissance in 1967. The theater had 1,600 seats and was designed by architect John M. Johansen, who used a style called “functional expressionism.”

CHAP member Larry Gibson said he had hoped to “muck up the waters” of the vote about the theater because he said the city’s Planning Department needed to apply more pressure on the developer to force a quick turnaround on the property’s redevelopment.

John C. Murphy, a prominent Baltimore attorney dedicated to historic preservation, told the panel that a similar boondoggle happened after the demolition of the former McCormick & Co. Inc. spice plant at the Inner Harbor in the late 1980s. That parcel was pegged for redevelopment that never occurred and today remains a surface parking lot, Murphy said.

“This is a very valuable building,” he told CHAP. “You shouldn’t tear it down and then have the economy change on you.”