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Nearly show time for wrecking ball at Mechanic

Outside the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, large signs announced the expected construction of a $150 million, mixed-use redevelopment to be called Mechanic Center.

Inside, the city’s former premier live performance center has fallen into ruin, as partial demolition is underway and the owners of the building await final city approvals to raze it with a wrecking ball. Dust and debris are strewn everywhere; the once lively stage and auditorium resemble an apocalyptic movie set.

City officials said Tuesday the redevelopment proposed by David S. Brown Enterprises of Owings Mills is moving forward, yet demolition permits and final design plans are still needed before demolition can begin.

“We’re ready to entertain this permit once it gets to us,” Baltimore Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur said on Tuesday.

When asked if demolition would begin by the end of the year, Stosur said: “That’s totally up to the development team at this point. It is within the realm of possibility.”

The 1,614-seat theater has been vacant since 2004. Its first opening night was on Jan. 16, 1967, amid much fanfare as part of the city’s downtown renaissance at nearby Charles Center.

Stosur said the city’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation and Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel must both approve the plans and designs for the redevelopment of the Mechanic.

Howard Brown, president of Brown Enterprises, has told city officials he plans to build two towers at the site to hold more than 300 apartment units, a hotel and retail and office space totaling more than 100,000 square feet.

Brown has hired architects to design a new gateway to Baltimore’s central business district, a departure from the Mechanic’s architect, John M. Johansen, who designed the theater in a style known as “functional expressionism.”

The Mechanic has been the topic of debate over the past year as the CHAP and UDARP panels have debated Brown’s plans for its future in a classic struggle of old versus new.

In testimony before CHAP last year, the hulking beige concrete building was called both ugly and a treasured city landmark.

Either way, its days are certainly numbered.