A commission of Baltimore City historic preservationists approved a request by a development team Tuesday to demolish five buildings situated at the corner of Howard and Fayette streets that are central to a decadeslong revival effort downtown.

Part of the Five & Dime historic district — a five-block stretch of commercial storefronts that used to serve as the city’s retail and shopping district — the buildings date back to the mid-to-late 19th century and range in height from 3 1/2 to four stories tall. The buildings are located near major attractions such as the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena, Lexington Market and the Hippodrome Theatre.

The historic designation is used to protect architecture from demolition in certain circumstances and requires developers to seek approval before they begin construction or demolition work.

With this vote, where does that leave the so-called “Superblock” project?

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What was the vote?

The commission voted in favor of a “full” demolition of the Fayette Street buildings and a “careful” demolition of the Howard Street properties. This means the developers, Westside Partners LLC, can raze the Fayette Street buildings entirely but must preserve as much as the Howard Street buildings as they can to incorporate certain elements — such as its window detail or original brick — into a new façade.

The developer team, led by Chris Janian of Vitruvius, and Jayson Williams of Mayson-Dixon Companies, have proposed a new chapter for the block called The Compass, a mixed-income live-and-work building with ground-level amenities.

Eric Holcomb, executive director of the city’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation, said the vote was informed by the current economic landscape. “The development costs today are of the day and are higher than what they were yesterday,” Holcomb said Wednesday. He said previous iterations of this same project have failed due to financing concerns.

He added that this vote would enable the long-awaited project, which has been sputtering since at least 1998, to move forward and revive a section of downtown that has seen progress elsewhere, including the newly finished Lexington Market redevelopment.

“I think the commission did a very good job of trying to place all this into perspective, and moving the city forward, and the block forward,” Holcomb said. He added that the commission gave consideration to a financial analysis submitted by the developers that found that they would have more difficulty convincing investors to contribute to their work if they retained or rehabilitated the buildings rather than demolishing them outright.

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Why does this matter?

Downtown Baltimore, like many other urban commercial districts, is still trying to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic. But city officials and downtown boosters also face a complex set of pre-pandemic challenges in trying to revive the area, with developers and businesses shifting their focus to waterfront land for decades.

City officials say downtown has an outsized role to play in ensuring the entire city’s success, given its large concentration of parking garages and hotels, two key revenue sources. The pandemic, violent crime and a lack of amenities have all been cited by residents, visitors and researchers as deterrents to more downtown activity.

Recognizing downtown’s importance, state and city lawmakers have begun paying a closer eye toward its revitalization. The area is receiving its largest public investment in a generation: more than $150 million in state funds that will be parceled out through fiscal year 2025 in downtown and the Inner Harbor. Nearly $12 million of that will go to the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, the business improvement district. At the northern edge of downtown, renovation of the 112-year-old Beaux-Arts-style Baltimore Penn Station also is underway, with a price tag of about $150 million.

Meanwhile, another $50 million in state funds will support the relocation of some 3,300 state employees to the Central Business District, a move that former Gov. Larry Hogan called a “shot in the arm” for downtown. And Lexington Market’s $45 million dollar facelift is considered a vital first step on the west side of downtown.

“Completing the Howard-Lexington project is the final piece in terms of putting together the puzzle of the west side,” said Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., told The Banner earlier this year. “It’s very significant and important that the project gets done.”

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What’s next?

Janian, on Wednesday, said the team initially had hoped for full demolition approval for both the Howard and Fayette properties. Still, he said the vote represents another step forward in the right direction.

“We are excited to be moving forward with our design process,” Janian said. “And while the compromise we agreed to will be an interesting design challenge, we’ll figure it out.”

There remain three more public hearings for the team to get through before they can fully begin development, Janian said. One of those hearings will be held with the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel, and two more will be with the historic preservation commission.

None of the three have been scheduled yet.