A proposal to redevelop a rundown section of downtown Baltimore hit a snag during its first public hearing Tuesday, a signal that the already long and fraught path to reviving the corridor may continue to be bumpy.
The $155 million project aims to revive a two-block stretch of long-dormant retail buildings on the west side of downtown known as the “Superblock” — bounded by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Avenue — with new mixed-income apartments, a hotel and stores.
The first step for the developers: Winning approval to demolish seven long-neglected buildings near the corner of Howard and Fayette streets. The buildings are located near major attractions such as the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena, as well as Lexington Market and the Hippodrome Theatre.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, the city’s historic preservation board issued an initial vote against the proposal to demolish five of the buildings.
“These buildings are critical to having a revitalization effort that is authentic and is vibrant,” said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage.
The developers said they are hopeful they can work with the commission to move this segment of the project forward.
“This was a great first step in the process of public approvals,” said Chris Janian, one of the developers, following the hearing. “We don’t really see it as a fight — we have a different opinion.”
The stakes for the project are perhaps higher than ever as the downtown neighborhood arrives at a precipice, both bogged down by harsh challenges — an acute lack of foot traffic, high rates of crime and competition from waterfront neighborhoods — and enjoying significant public and private investment and the support of a new governor, Democrat Wes Moore.
“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. “It’s very significant and important that the project gets done.”
Downtown ‘renaissance’ envisioned
For years, developers have cycled in and out of the area, stymied by the expensive task of restoring the long-neglected area and facing periodic opposition from groups fighting to preserve the unique history and architecture of the downtown corridor.
The new developers — Westside Partners, a joint venture of developers Mayson-Dixon, Vitruvius, and Partnered — say this time is different.
Janian, of Vitruvius, and Jayson Williams of Mayson-Dixon noted that their project is distinguished by collaboration with — and support from — a range of stakeholders.
“We’ve already brought together the City, the State, Federal partners, local businesses, institutions, private developers, and community groups to all help bring the vision to life as our project progresses,” Williams wrote in an email to The Banner. “It’s a new more collaborative day in Baltimore.”
And, Janian and Williams say, other recent investments in the area underscore the need for their project, which they’ve named The Compass.
“The neighborhood is just at the beginning of its renaissance and changing fast,” wrote Janian, noting the recent renovations of both the arena and Lexington Market. The development sits in the Bromo Arts District, with existing venues and events serving as the launchpad for what could be a more lively entertainment district.
But how quickly downtown residents and visitors will see changes arrive to the Superblock depends at least in part on how quickly developers can make it through a maze of required city approvals.
At Tuesday’s hearing, members of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, determined that five of the seven buildings that developers hope to demolish are architecturally significant to the Five & Dime historic district where they sit. The developers plan to return to the commission to make their case for demolition of the mid- to late-19th century rowhouses.
Overall, the approval process could take a year or more, said Eric Holcomb, executive director of CHAP. Williams and Janian said that they expected it would take around six months.
The developers insist that they are committed to preserving a significant chunk of the existing buildings, including as much as they can of the former Read’s Drug Store, where Morgan State College students staged a lunch counter sit-in in 1955, five years before the beginning of the better known sit-ins at Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina.
They say the preservation mission is personal to them, too: Janian has long heard his mother’s stories about shopping at department stores on Howard Street such as Brager-Gutman’s. Williams’ great-grandfather, James B. Carpenter, was something of a local celebrity in the area, having run a shoeshine and repair service inside Lexington Market before spending his later years as its official bell-ringer, tolling in the start of the business day every morning.
“We don’t take demolishing buildings lightly,” said Williams, speaking to the commissioners before they took their vote. “But we know that due to the physical constraints of these current buildings, the state of the buildings, we’re asking you to demolish them so that we can move our project forward, create density, create a lasting impact, and truly tell the story of Howard and Lexington streets.”
Some of the buildings have fallen into severe disrepair after years of neglect, making the task of preserving them costly.
“We love history and historic architecture but it’s difficult to work with many historic buildings in the city because they were built for vastly different uses,” Janian wrote to The Banner. With their deteriorating conditions and dated floor plans, he said, several of the buildings on the site are “no longer viable for any of the uses in the project.”
Preservationists have come out to defend the buildings’ historical significance.
“We can have a downtown — a market center— that is a fantastic place and that is rooted squarely in Baltimore and to do that we need to save as many historic buildings on the Superblock as possible,” Hopkins said. “You don’t need to be an engineer to walk around those buildings and see that the original bricks are still there and in pretty good shape. Even some of the wonderful arched window openings are still there.”
Holcomb said the commission hopes to work with the parties to “incorporate preservation into this development project” and come up with a solution that’s a win-win.
Urgent action needed
Some downtown business owners worry that by the time the developers get through the approval process, it’ll be too late.
Vince Fava, a third-generation owner and operator of the nearby Italian market, Trinacria, has been hearing about Superblock redevelopment plans for years. All the while, the area has become even more unrecognizable from the bustling shopping district he remembers from his childhood.
“My family’s been here all my life and they’ve been talking [for years] about the Superblock, fixing up Howard Street — nothing seems to really materialize,” Fava said.
While the public hearing marked a crucial step for the proposal, this iteration has already encountered some snags: the team missed a June 2022 target date to satisfy a series of requirements in order to purchase the properties from the city. The developers’ target date to break ground — by the end of last year — came and went.
“We would love for the process to be quicker, but when we’re trying to thoughtfully build something for our city that will impact it for decades to come, it can slow down the planning process,” wrote Williams and Janian, adding that the June target date was set only in case they determined that they needed an early closing date.
Meanwhile, Modern Builders LLC — the construction company housed under Williams’ Mayson-Dixon umbrella — is facing three active legal complaints, all filed since the beginning of this year, for three different allegations of contract breaches, court records show. According to one of the complaints, the company “was habitually late, failed to use project funds to pay its subcontractors and failed to procure materials with money entrusted to it.” Another company suing for breach of contract claims it’s owed more than $30,000 from the company.
In November of last year, several subcontractors and employees of Modern Builders showed up at a development site in the Belvedere area and staged a protest, one complaint states, in response to not being paid.
Williams, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment on whether the lawsuits might affect The Compass.
Even if the Superblock plans do come to fruition, Fava is skeptical that it’ll be successful in drawing people to the area, which he said looks like a “ghost town” on many days. He cited prospective visitors’ concerns about crime.
A Baltimore Banner data analysis last month found that crime downtown remains a serious challenge. Between 2015 and 2022, the violent crime rate in downtown far outpaced the citywide rate. In 2022, the number of violent crime incidents per 1,000 people in downtown was six times higher than the citywide rate.
“If they build it — which is a long way down the road — who is going to support it?” Fava asked.
There are plenty of attractions in the area now, he said, but none has created the reliable foot traffic that his and other businesses nearby need to remain stable. Just last week, the Italian restaurant Forno, one of the few restaurants in the west part of downtown, closed down.
“What makes you think that you’ll build this and then they’ll come?” asked Fava. “First you have to get the confidence of the people back.”
Reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.