The developer who agreed last year to explore restoring part of the historic Martick’s restaurant building in downtown’s west side now says he is not able to carry out his original plan because the public funds he was seeking never came through.
Developer Chris Janian, of the Vitruvius Company and Park Avenue Partners, told Baltimore’s preservation commission this week that the estimated cost of rehabbing the vacant Martick’s Restaurant Francais building, at 214 W. Mulberry St., has risen from $600,000 to $800,000 over the past year, and that his group didn’t receive $300,000 in funding assistance from the state’s Project CORE program, as he had hoped.
Janian asked the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) to approve an alternate plan that would involve replacing the Martick’s building’s roof with a metal trellis covered with plantings, removing the second floor, stabilizing the masonry walls and leaving the interior open to the elements with an enclosed patio at ground level.
Janian said the patio could be used to provide outdoor seating space for an as-yet-unidentified adjacent restaurant in the base of a six-story, $35 million apartment building called 400 Park that his group plans to build on the rest of the block.
Rent the restaurant paid for the outdoor patio space could help make up for the money that didn’t come from Project CORE, he said.
He added that a stabilized shell could later be fully enclosed, if an appropriate user emerged and funding became available.
Janian said the inability to secure CORE funds to help restore the Martick’s building was “a real hit” that prevented his team from carrying out its previous plan. He said he’s now in the process of finalizing plans and seeking permits for the larger apartment project, and lenders are looking for developers to cut costs as much as they can during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We right now are fighting for tens of thousands of dollars in [value engineering] items,” he said, referring to items that add value to a project but arguably could be cut out. “Especially in this current climate, in the financing world in which it’s incredibly difficult to get projects financed, we are being asked to cut costs wherever we possibly can. If something isn’t an income-producing piece in the project, it gets cut.”
If CHAP won’t let his group alter its plans and proceed with a less comprehensive and costly approach to rehabbing the Martick’s building, he said “it would stall the… entire $35 million project.”
During the virtual meeting, Janian and CHAP staff preservationist Stacy Montgomery presented a rendering showing the front of the Martick’s building with a sloping, planted-covered steel-frame trellis in place of a solid roof.
According to Montgomery, the trellis “would mimic the shape of the historic roof and dormer” and would be covered with plantings to create a porous “green screen.”
Window openings on the first floor would be filled with new windows to replicate the historic ones, and openings on the second level would remain open with steel frames and no sashes or glass panes. In addition, framing for the second floor would be removed, exterior walls would be weatherproofed, and interior walls would be repointed, Montgomery said.
The design, by Quinn Evans Architects, was somewhat reminiscent of the open-air “ghost” structures that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown created to recall Benjamin Franklin’s home at Franklin Court in Philadelphia.
Janian said the plans for Martick’s would give the adjacent restaurant more seating options while preserving the front of the historic structure, one of the few downtown that dates from before the Civil War. The second-level windows aren’t being replaced, he said, to help naturally ventilate the open space.
The fate of Martick’s has been a long-running saga. In addition to pre-dating the Civil War, it’s considered historically significant because of its association with the noted restaurateur Morris Martick and for the role it played as a magnet for visual artists, musicians and other creative types over the years.
The restaurant, which opened in 1970 and closed in 2008, was one of the first places where Baltimoreans were introduced to French cuisine. During the 1950s and 1960s, Martick’s was a jazz club that attracted performers such as Billie Holiday and Leonard Bernstein. During the Prohibition era, it reportedly housed a speakeasy.
CHAP has review authority over proposed exterior changes because it’s considered a “contributing building” in the city’s Howard Street Commercial Historic District.
Janian said the development team acquired the Martick’s building because it didn’t want a vacant structure next to its apartments, appreciated the building’s history and hoped to find an appropriate use for it.
He noted that other developers have tried to find a way to restore the building but couldn’t make the numbers work. He said he thought the trellis approach would be a creative solution and would leave open the possibility of a more complete restoration when more funds become available.
“I think we had found a pretty good middle ground,” he said. “If we were to put a roof on the building, that triggered essentially every bit of interior work that we have to do. Mothballing it into a warm, dark shell is a significant expense that provides us zero income and will be cut from the larger budget. And if we do it as a standalone, it’s half a million dollars to mothball a 1000-square-foot space.”
The current financial climate has limited the options for a building such as Martick’s, he said.
“We are at the point right now… that we’re in the final stages of our permit process” for the apartment portion, he said. “We’re ready to start construction in the next few months… cost lenders and equity providers are pulling out of deals because they’re not really putting out money right now.”
At this point, “we’ve essentially run out of time and run out of options,” he said. “I think we’ve come up with a creative solution that activates the space, that keeps the majority of the historic fabric and provides a really interesting green-roofed space for a cool historic building.”
Montgomery said the staff recommended disapproval of the proposal, on the grounds that the plan didn’t meet CHAP’s design guidelines since it called for removal of the gable roof and second floor windows. She said the staff would like the developer to return to the commission with a plan to install a “true roof” and windows on all levels.
“Our guidelines aren’t really set up to approve this kind of proposal,” she told the commission.
The commissioners had mixed reactions to Janian’s plan to replace the solid roof with a trellis and leave the shell open.
Panel member Matthew Mosca said he thought it could work. “I actually am very excited by this proposal,” he said. “I think it would be a very interesting use for the building, particularly since one aspect of the building’s significance is its cultural significance. The fact that it would be used as a restaurant continues its traditional use as it was during the Martick’s period, so I think this is really something that I could support.”
Panel member Jim French, a developer, said he supports the plan. “In the time that we’re living in now, to have a project of this magnitude sort of be this close to the finish line, I really want to say that I think that what’s been presented here, at least in my mind, I could live with it. I do feel that it’s a creative approach and it doesn’t necessarily close the door to some future efforts to do something else here.”
Panel member Laura Thul Penza wondered if the developer could build a solid roof over the front part of the structure, closest to Mulberry Street, but in general supported the approach. “I really love the idea of the tree growing out of the roof that happens throughout the city,” she said. “Not in a negative way, necessarily. This would be a wonderful positive way for that liveliness.”
Other commissioners weren’t convinced.
Tom Liebel, the commission chair, questioned how the developer would treat the interior once the roof is taken off, to address rain getting inside and brace the walls. “It’s a very compelling image,” he said of the rendering. But “I’m not certain that the cost estimate that was presented reflects the level of finish and quality that the rendering calls out… I’m not convinced that the cost estimate really reflects all that scope of work.”
Panel member Larry Gibson said he didn’t see why the developer should be allowed to deviate from the previously-approved plans. He said CHAP already allowed the developer to remove the rear two-thirds of the Martick’s structure, and just preserve the front third, as a way to cut costs. Noting that there has been “a lot of interest” from the general public in the fate of the Martick’s building, he said he didn’t believe the developers should now be allowed to remove the roof.
“I think the concessions that we made before were pretty substantial–removal of the rear building and some of these other things that we did to try to accommodate,” he said. “This nibbling and nibbling and nibbling back at us – I’m having trouble with it.”
Panel member Ann Powell noted that commissioners are supposed to uphold the city’s design guidelines and the trellis proposal “clearly violates” them. “I think it’s important that we are not here to vote based on stylistic preferences, what we think is an interesting project,” she said. “We are here as representatives to something else.”
Powell noted that the developer talked about how much money his team might lose on restoring the Martick’s building but didn’t talk about what it might make on the apartments. “It’s very hard to hear these kind of rationalizations on the economics when we don’t get to hear about the economic benefits to the project of the balance of the land,” she said. “Is there something I’m missing here?”
Johns Hopkins of Baltimore Heritage said both his organization and the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association do not support the trellis plan because it doesn’t meet the city’s design guidelines. “It’s really creative and artistically interesting,” he said. “But CHAP goes by design guidelines, not by aesthetic reviews.”
In the end, the panel voted 5 to 4 to reject the trellis plan. Janian said in an email after the meeting that the panel’s vote means the fate of Martick’s is still up in the air.
“I’m obviously disappointed about the commission’s vote,” he said. “As a city, we need to focus on creating relevant and forward-thinking moments. I think creating a new outdoor cultural and dining space within the former Martick’s is one of those. It keeps the spirit of Morris Martick alive and is the only financially viable option we have to preserve the majority of the remaining historic building and fill it with neighborhood-benefitting activity.”
He said the project will still move forward, “but the future of Martick’s won’t be certain unless a hardship request is approved by… CHAP.”