Brager-Gutman building and other Westside properties in search of a developer

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Photo by Ed Gunts.

One of Baltimore’s former downtown department stores is back on the market, after a development team previously selected by the city opted not to move ahead with its project.

The eight-story Brager-Gutman building at 201-211 W. Lexington St., is part of a group of about two dozen West Side properties for which the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC) this week issued a request for proposals.

This is the third time that redevelopment officials have offered the vacant Brager-Gutman property to prospective buyers.

It was part of the so-called Superblock parcel that was awarded more than a decade ago to an out-of-town group that proposed converting it to apartments but didn’t carry out its plans.

After that, city officials were hopeful they had found a developer when they re-offered the property and Mid-Atlantic Health Care of Timonium proposed to convert it to a $20 million, 80-bed skilled nursing facility called Restore Health Baltimore, where patients could go for rehabilitation after a hospital stay. Kann Partners, now Waldon Studio Architects, was to be the designer.

Awarded the property in 2016, Mid-Atlantic notified the BDC several months ago that it had decided not to move ahead because it was pursuing a different site for its project.

A Mid-Atlantic Health Care representative said the group has identified a property on the University of Maryland Medical System’s downtown campus and is working with the Maryland Health Care Commission to get approval to build its nursing facility there.

Kim Clark, executive vice president of the BDC, is optimistic that the third time will be the charm, saying the former department store could be converted to housing with ground-floor retail space, traditional offices, shared work space or other uses. “There are a lot of options.”

For years, the city planners were counting on one developer to carry out a large project in the area bounded roughly by Howard, Lexington and Fayette streets and Park Avenue, where the city had acquired most of the buildings. The city had to take that team to court to get the properties back when the project stalled.

Under BDC president and CEO William Cole IV, the city’s strategy has been to break the Superblock into more manageable parcels and award them to separate groups. That is what it’s doing with the latest request for proposals.

The Brager-Gutman building is one of the largest structures offered in the current round, which has a July 9 deadline for proposals. Others include the former Schulte United Building, the former Woolworth’s store, the former McCrory’s store, the former Howard’s Furniture Store, the former Pickwick Theater and land at 206 W. Fayette St., where the downtown Greyhound bus station was for many years.

The former Read’s Drug Store at 123-127 Howard St., was awarded to Spotlighters Theatre, which wanted to move there but later backed out.

As part of its proposal, the Spotlighters team had promised to pay tribute to the building’s civil rights history as a place where Morgan State students held an impromptu lunch counter sit-in to protest Read’s policy of not providing counter service to African Americans.

Shortly after the 1955 protest, which was long before the more publicized Woolworth’s lunch counter protest in Greensboro S.C., in 1960, the owner of the Read’s chain changed its policy and agreed to serve African-Americans in all of its stores.

Clark said the BDC’s strategy of offering smaller parcels to more developers, rather than giving many properties to just one team, has worked well and that many once-dormant properties on the Westside of downtown are finally getting fixed up.

“Recently, we’ve had many success stories,” she said. “We’re going to continue building on these successes.”

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts


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