Three vacant commercial buildings near Lexington Market, including a former department store, would be demolished to make way for a six-story residential structure if Baltimore’s preservation commission approves a developer’s request to tear them down.
At its monthly meeting on Tuesday, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) is scheduled to consider an application to raze three structures at the northeast corner of Park Avenue and West Lexington Street, part of the city’s Five & Dime Historic District.
According to state land records, the three buildings are owned by the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore and have a combined assessed value of more than $1 million, as of July 1. The city paid more than $1.1 million to acquire them since 2000. The Baltimore Development Corporation has sought proposals for the properties as a package more than once, most recently in 2021.
The 100 block of West Lexington Street is an intact stretch of commercial buildings constructed between 50 and 100 years ago. It is across Park Avenue from an open lot where the New Theatre was torn down in 2010 and one block east of the so-called “Superblock” where developers have proposed a mixed-use project called The Compass.
The applicant seeking to raze the buildings on Lexington Street and Park Avenue is Chukuemeka “Chukes” Okoro, 54. Born in England, Okoro is the founder and head of Okoro Development in Baltimore, based at 109 W. Lexington St.
Founded in 2003, Okoro Development rehabbed the six-story building at 109 W. Lexington St. during the COVID-19 pandemic to contain 15 apartments. The company also invested $640,000 to renovate the former Peanut Shoppe building at 101 W. Lexington St. with six residential units and $546,000 to renovate 324-326 Park Ave. as four units.
According to CHAP executive director Eric Holcomb, Okoro proposes to construct a six-story residential building on the footprint of the three buildings. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore supports the demolition.
The buildings targeted for demolition are:
114 W. Lexington St., a three-story, 5,340-square-foot brick structure that was built in the late 19th century and for many years served as the entry to a Thomas Lamb-designed theater called The Garden. It features a two-story bay window over a boarded-up storefront. According to the Maryland Historical Trust, it once housed the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. The city bought it in 2000 for $282,500, and it has an assessed value of $237,167 as of July 1.
116-120 W. Lexington St., a four-story, 12,083-square-foot building that was constructed in 1941 as a local branch of the Ann Lewis Shops, a national chain of women’s department stores. An example of the Moderne style of design, it has a windowless façade above the first level. The city bought it in 2001 for $850,000 and it has an assessed value of $715,200 as of July 1. In 2019, CHAP turned down a request by a different applicant to paint a mural on the exterior, with several commissioners noting the unusual nature of the undulating façade.
207-209 Park Ave., a four-story, 3,648-square-foot commercial building that was constructed around 1900 and has housed a variety of businesses. The Park Avenue façade features orange iron-spot brick, decorative metal windows and a dentilled brick cornice. It isn’t as deep as the other two. The city acquired it in 2001 for no money in a non-arms-length transaction. It has an assessed value of $80,167 as of July 1.
CHAP has a two-step process for considering applications to demolish structures in local historic districts. Unlike the Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York City and some other panels, it does not review or discuss plans for a replacement structure during the initial demolition hearing, so commissioners can focus on the historical and architecture significance of the building or buildings targeted for demolition.
Under CHAP’s process, the panel first holds a hearing to determine whether a structure is a contributing structure in the historic district. If it isn’t deemed a contributing structure, CHAP won’t block demolition although it will want to review what is proposed to take its place at a later hearing.
If a building is considered a contributing structure, CHAP will hold a second hearing to consider what the applicant wants to build in place of the existing structure and whether retaining the existing structure would pose an economic hardship to the applicant.
Tuesday will be the first hearing in response to Okoro’s application. CHAP’s staff met with the developer at the site in April. The staff is recommending that the 11-member citizens panel find that all three buildings do contribute to the Five & Dime Historic District, a decision that would trigger a second hearing if the panel follows the recommendation and the applicant still wants to proceed with demolition.
Other items on CHAP’s agenda for Tuesday include: A request by Westside Partners, the developer of The Compass project, to tear down buildings at 220, 222 and 224 W. Fayette St. and 105 and 107 N. Howard St. in the Five & Dime Historic District to make way for their project (the second step in CHAP’s demolition hearing process); a request from Henson Development, Mission First Housing, and PI.KL Studio LLC to build a four-story addition to a city landmark, the former Eastern Female High School at 249 Aisquith St.; and a request from H&S Bakery to reconstruct the front façade of a building it owns at 1530 Fleet St. in the Fells Point Historic District.
The staff and panel will also discuss controversial efforts by BGE to install gas regulators on the exterior of homes in city historic districts and the city’s law department will provide an update on the panel’s decision not to block demolition of the former Hendler Creamery at 1100 E. Baltimore St.
The in-person public hearing will start at 1 p.m. on the eighth floor of the Benton Building at 417 E. Fayette St., with a pre-hearing briefing session at noon.