While replete with vacant properties in 2018, stretches of downtown Baltimore’s west side served as a hub for shopping and other commercial activity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Now, after years of failed attempts by developers and others to revamp the area, city lawmakers are considering two sections for Baltimore’s portfolio of protected historic districts.
The Baltimore City Council’s Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Tuesday night unanimously approved two bills that would designate the so-called Five and Dime and Howard Street Commercial districts.
The designations would preserve the districts’ buildings—some of which date back to the 1820s, and hosted pivotal moments in Baltimore’s civil rights legacy—as the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) invites private interests to redevelop them into residential, commercial or mixed-use properties.
“I’m really excited about protecting the history that’s left with these neighborhoods,” Eric Holcomb, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), testified to the committee. “The architecture is really significant, and I think it can really provide a great foundation for restoration and revitalization. It creates a new community, a revitalized community full of dynamic apartments, residents and storekeepers.”
Per CHAP staff reports filed with the City Council (diagrams above), the Five and Dime Historic District would encapsulate an eight-sided area from W. Fayette Street to the south, Clay and W. Lexington streets to the north, N. Liberty Street to the east and buildings bordering Howard Street to the west.
The Howard Street Commercial District would be smaller and more simply bordered, running from W. Mulberry Street to the south, W. Franklin Street to the north, the western side of Park Avenue to the east and State Street to the west (also including Tyson Street, Inloes Alley and Wilson Alley within).
The Five and Dime Historic District’s five blocks once held some of the city’s largest department stores, along with an array of five and dime stores along W. Lexington Street, CHAP noted in a staff report. The former Read’s Drug Store, located at the southeast corner of Howard and W. Lexington streets, was where Dr. Helena Hicks and fellow Morgan State students in 1955 organized one of the first anti-segregation sit-ins.
“Read’s Drug store…that is not the prettiest building in the world,” admitted Baltimore Heritage executive director Johns Hopkins while testifying on Tuesday. “But that should be one of the poster children for that celebration of one of America’s greatest contributions to the world,” he said, referring to the modern civil rights movement.
Another example: The Martick’s building, in what would be Howard Street Commercial Historic District. Asked by Councilman Ryan Dorsey about its historical significance, Holcomb said the W. Mulberry Street rowhouse once held a speakeasy in addition to the former Martick’s restaurant and tavern, and “was an integrated gathering place as early as the ’20s, where African-Americans and whites would come and socialize.”
It was also constructed in the 1820s, he added, and the building received its given façade, including its decorative cornice moulding, later on in the late 19th century. “That really kind of shows the development and evolution of building types in Baltimore, and the architecture,” he said.
These areas have been ripe for failed redevelopment pitches. There was the since-abandoned Superblock plan, which threatened to demolish Read’s, and an earlier push to demolish hundreds of buildings to introduce new retailers, parking garages and apartments, which collapsed in 2001.
The BDC will be soliciting bids from developers to adapt the historic properties within both districts, according to Holcomb. He expects ideas will include a mix of residential and retail use, including apartments, offices and ground-floor retail.
Darron Cooper, economic development officer for the BDC, testified that the historic designations would “streamline the process” for developers and make it “simpler or cleaner for the private community, for private investment.”
Of course, any redevelopment of a blighted urban area brings with it concerns of gentrification. Dorsey questioned whether the city may be “rent-seeking,” or modifying public policy to benefit private interests at the expense of the surrounding community. He pointed out that the area has a number of art spaces like Current Gallery and Le Mondo, as well as active businesses along Howard and Park streets, that could become threatened.
Hopkins said the nearly all of the feedback received by Baltimore Heritage, which has worked with CHAP on the historic-designation effort, has been supportive. Holcomb noted they conducted an “extensive outreach campaign,” and Councilman John Bullock, chair of the committee, said boundaries were drawn based on the feedback they received.
“This is clearly a project that has lots of outside support and support from the community,” Councilman Bill Henry chimed in.
The committee’s vote of approval today sends both bills to the full Baltimore City Council. If approved on second and third reader and signed by the mayor, the two sections of the west side would become Baltimore’s 35th and 36th protected historic districts.
Speaking with Baltimore Fishbowl after the bills advanced, Holcomb said preserving the west side’s historic structures will allow them to retain their economic, historic and cultural value, similarly to how an antique appreciates over time. It will also preserve them as relics of important occasions like the 1955 sit-in at Read’s.
“It allows for the opportunity for these wonderful stories to keep popping up and to become part of the layer, the fabric of that community,” he said.
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