Owner Considers Mount Vernon Nightspot Sale, Former Sons of Italy Lodge Eyed for Demolition; Progress on Roland Park Water Tower and More

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Grand Central
Grand Central

One year after the Hippo nightclub closed due to the owner’s retirement, the fate of another gay-friendly Mount Vernon nightspot is up in the air.

Don Davis, the owner of Grand Central at Charles and Eager streets, posted a message on Facebook over the weekend indicating that he is thinking of selling his business and retiring.

“I will be 66 years old,” he wrote. “My health…is not good. I am always totally stressed out with constantly worrying about business. It seems like it’s not worth the stress. I am not going to have this place kill me.”

In response to comments, Davis said his sale price would be $2.6 million, “which includes the business and the almost 15,000 sq. ft. of property.” He said he would sell it as a turnkey operation, with everything in the buildings staying.

The potential sale is notable because Grand Central occupies a prominent corner of Charles Street, employs 29 people, and is the largest “alternative” nightclub in Baltimore, drawing a primarily gay crowd but welcoming anyone. The former Hippo building, at the same intersection, has been converted to a branch of CVS.

Davis opened Central Station at 1001 North Charles Street in 1991 and then expanded by purchasing the adjacent nightclub at 1003 North Charles in 2003 and renaming the combined operation Grand Central. It became an anchor for Midtown-Belvedere and a gathering place during parades and other events.

In recent years, Davis has split his time between Maryland and Florida. In his comments online, he said that the arrangement is not ideal. “I cannot be an absentee owner and make it work.”

He also noted that gay people socialize in different ways than they did in 1991.

“So many are now meeting people on the internet and so many now are feeling comfortable hanging out with their straight friends in pubs/restaurants,” he wrote.

Davis’ statements come as his business is facing new competition on two fronts. Last week, developers unveiled plans for another incarnation of Hammerjacks nightclub near Camden Yards. In the 2000 block of North Charles Street, a group is planning to reopen the Baltimore Eagle nightclub, after transferring the liquor license from the Hippo.

Davis has mentioned on Facebook before that he is thinking of selling, but his message this time had an air of resignation that previous messages didn’t have.

“I would like to thank everyone who has been gracious with supporting Grand Central,” he wrote. “Grand Central is a huge operation. It takes a lot of money to employ 29. And the everyday expenses. Anyone who owns a business will totally understand. Again my biggest thank you.”

Former Sons of Italy building eyed for demolition

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Sons of Italy building

Lexington Market’s 1950s-era building may not be the only noteworthy structure to disappear soon from Baltimore’s West Side.

Developers said last week that they are seeking approval from the Maryland Historical Trust to demolish the vacant Sons of Italy building at 410-412 West Fayette Street, between Eutaw and Paca Streets.

The building is part of a larger parcel where Focus Development LLC plans to build an apartment and retail complex called University Lofts.

The former Drovers and Mechanics National Bank building at 100 North Eutaw Street is also part of the development site. The 1894 structure was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry and expanded in 1917. It has been vacant since the 1980s.

The land is just south of Lexington Market, whose main building would be torn down and reconstructed under plans unveiled by city officials last week. The University of Maryland has been the owner of the Sons of Italy and Drover’s buildings and selected the developer through a request for proposals process.

In its request for proposals, the University of Maryland asked for plans that would preserve the entire Drovers building and at least the front portion of the Sons of Italy building, which has a distinctive brick façade.

In a presentation to Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel last week, architect Tom Liebel of Marks, Thomas Architects said his firm’s plans calls for the Drovers building to be preserved and for the Sons of Italy building to be torn down to make way for new construction.

The development team showed renderings of a 10-story building rising in place of the Sons of Italy structure. The combined project would contain 230 apartments, 130 parking spaces, and street-level commercial space.

The apartments would be market rate and aimed at graduate students and others who want to be near the University of Maryland Baltimore campus and other destinations on the west side of downtown.

The Sons of Italy building was built approximately 100 years ago as a lodge for the organization. It has been named a contributing building to a westside historic district identified in a 2001 Memorandum of Agreement between the city and the state. It also falls within the 24-block Market Center Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places but is not individually listed.

Under the MOA, no contributing building can be demolished without approval from the Maryland Historical Trust, the state’s preservation agency. The memorandum was drafted when the state was planning to invest in restoration of the Hippodrome Theater, and state officials wanted the city to have a more preservation-friendly development strategy for the area around the Hippodrome. The Sons of Italy and Drover’s buildings are one block north of the Hippodrome block.

Members of the design review panel asked Liebel whether the demolition plan has been approved by the Maryland Historical Trust. Liebel, who serves as chairman of the Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said his group has presented its plans to the agency and explained its reasoning for wanting to demolish the Sons of Italy building. He told the review panel that the Sons of Italy building does not fit in with Focus’ plans to build 230 apartments on the site.

“It is a contributing structure” under the MOA, he said of the Sons of Italy building. “However, it doesn’t currently work with our program. We presented this to the MHT…We were able to demonstrate to them that it is not salvageable.”

Liebel said the development team is currently working with Trust representatives to determine ways to mitigate the demolition of the Sons of Italy building and that Focus expects to get permission to raze it to make way for new construction, once an agreement is reached.

“They are comfortable with our efforts to salvage it, and now we are working on mitigation,” Liebel said.

The UDARP members did not push the preservation issue further.  They spent the rest of the meeting discussing how the new University Lofts building would fit into the block and relate to a reconstructed Lexington Market to the north. At the end of the meeting, they approved the preliminary design, with comments.

The Finance Committee of the University of Maryland Board of Regents approved the sale of the development parcel to a Focus affiliate at a meeting in October, contingent on the buyer having sufficient “equity, debt and other resources” to build the project it proposed.

The sale price is $1.883 million. The buyer is required to begin construction within 18 months of the execution of the sale agreement and be substantially complete within 36 months. 

Roland Park Community Foundation hires Tom McCracken for water tower restoration

The non-profit Roland Park Community Foundation has hired construction and preservation expert and Roland Park resident Tom McCracken of McCracken Consulting to serve as project manager for the restoration of the 111-year-old water tower on Roland Avenue, according to the Roland Park News.

McCracken recently represented the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy during the restoration of the Washington Monument.  JMT (Johnson Mirmiran & Thompson), is the architect and engineer for the water tower restoration project, which includes a public park at the tower’s base.

The Community Foundation’s board, working with McCracken, has agreed to oversee construction so that the project will be completed more quickly, according to the Roland Park News. 

Forum today to discuss plans for park on longtime Radebaugh property in Towson

Plans to build a public park on land that has been owned by Radebaugh Florist and Greenhouses will be discussed at a community forum today at 7 p.m. at First Lutheran Church, 40 Burke Avenue in Towson.

County officials announced last month that they are buying land for the park near Burke and Aigburth avenues for $1.1 million, using Program Open Space funds. The Green Towson Alliance and Baltimore County Councilman David Marks organized the meeting to hear from community residents about what they want to see in the proposed park. Radebaugh’s will continue to operate its design center and florist shop nearby.

Funding approved for Convention Center expansion study

Funding has been approved for the $1 million first phase of a $2.5 million “program design and engineering study” to help determine whether the city and state should expand the Baltimore Convention Center to help it compete with those in other cities.

Over the past month, the Maryland Stadium Authority, the Baltimore Development Corporation and Baltimore’s Board of Estimates have approved funds to be used to complete the initial phase of the study, which is expected to take a year to complete.

The source of funds includes $626,667 from the State of Maryland; $313,333 from the City of Baltimore; $30,000 from the Greater Baltimore Committee and $30,000 from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. A consultant team has not been selected.

Royal Farms gas station plan for Joppa Road fails to win approval

A proposal by Royal Farms to build a gas station and convenience store at the southwest corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road is not moving ahead, due to community opposition.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks told The Baltimore Sun that the council denied a request to rezone the property so the gas station could be built, on his recommendation. The council’s decision means that the existing buildings on the site will remain, including a three-story structure in the 8600 block of Loch Raven Boulevard that will be the new home of Ukazoo Books.

In addition, the Gavigan’s furniture store chain plans to open a branch on the site of Harold’s fruit market at 1750 East Joppa Road, Marks told the Sun.

John Schratwieser leaving Maryland Citizens for the Arts

Maryland Citizens for the Arts recently announced that its executive director for the past seven years, John Schratwieser, will leave the organization at the end of the 2017 General Assembly session in April and that it is looking for his successor.

According to the MCA, Schratwieser will be relocating to Chestertown, his former home, where he’ll launch a new artist residency program in that town’s Arts and Entertainment District.

The MCA has set a deadline of December 31 for resumes and hopes to select a new director by late March.

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts writes Urban Landscape on Mondays in the Baltimore Fishbowl. He is the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts