The former Read’s drug store building at Howard and Lexington streets will become a new home for the Spotlighters Theatre, with an exhibit about the building’s civil rights history, if Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake approves a proposal submitted by Spotlighters.

The board of the Baltimore Development Corporation, which oversees west side revitalization efforts for the city, met in closed session today to consider a proposal to transform the vacant Read’s building at 123 North Howard Street, now a city-owned property, to the “Audrey Herman Community Arts Center,” named after the theater’s founder.


After the meeting returned to open session, BDC staffers would not say what action the board members took. But they said the board will forward a recommendation to the mayor’s office and that more information will come out at a future Board of Estimates meeting if the mayor elects to move ahead with the project.

The project would only get onto a Board of Estimates agenda if the BDC supports it, so the notice that more information will be available at a future Board of Estimates meeting is a sign that the BDC board most likely recommended that the mayor accept the theater’s bid.

Founded in 1962, Spotlighters Theatre is currently located in 817 St. Paul Street in Mount Vernon and has been looking for a larger home.  Moving to Howard Street would make it part of the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District, which also includes Everynan Theatre and the Hippodrome Theater.

The vacant Read’s drug store was the site of a 1955 lunch counter sit in, mounted by Morgan State students who were objecting to Read’s policy of not serving African Americans at the lunch counter. It predated a more famous lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, by five years.

Shortly after the Howard Street sit in, Read’s changed its policy at all of its stores and began to offer lunch counter service to African-Americans. Local historians say it was an important moment in  civil rights history.

Before the BDC board went into closed session, staffers and board members outlined the details of the Spotlighters proposal and talked positively about what it would do for the area.

They said Spotlighters was the only bidder to respond after the BDC issued a request for development proposals in 2015.

They said the group offered to pay $300,000 for the building, a figure that  they said is in line with its appraised value.

The building has four levels and more than 16,000 square feet of space. Plans call for a 120-seat theater, a work shop, rehearsal space, dressing rooms, a green room, a costume shop, a multi purpose rental space that includes a catering kitchen, classroom spaces, theater offices and storage space.

The theater group also would create a replica of the Read’s lunch counter and a gallery with an exhibit about the 1955 sit in.

Cho Benn Holback + Associates is the architect. The French Company is a development consultant on the team. Southway Builders is the construction manager. The Arts Consultant Group is an arts consultant.

BDC officials did not disclose how much Spotlighters would invest to renovate the building or whether the city would help fund the work. Darron Cooper, Central Team Director for the BDC, said the city already has spent “upwards of $500,000” to stabilize the building and prepare it for redevelopment, including a new roof.

If the city agrees to move ahead with the project and sell the building to Spotlighters, he said, the developer’s timetable calls for construction to begin in 2017 and be completed in time for a grand opening in late 2018.

Seven other west side properties awarded to developers

In other action, the BDC announced  that it will enter into an Exclusive Negotiating Privilege and Right of Entry agreement with the Washington-Baltimore Development Company and Tristar Investing for the disposition and redevelopment of seven Howard Street properties on downtown’s west side.

“I am pleased that Washington-Baltimore Development Company and TriStar Investing submitted such a strong response and vision for Howard Street East properties,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.  “The redevelopment of these properties will leverage the success of the nearby 520 Park Avenue project and continue the significant progress we are making to revitalize downtown’s west side.”

The properties, located at 409 N. Tyson Street, 400, 406, 408, 410, 412 and 414 Park Avenue in the Bromo Arts & Entertainment District, will become part of new development known as “Howard Station.” The project involves the adaptive reuse of six vacant, historically contributing properties, and the demolition of a structurally deficient parking deck at the corner of Park Avenue and Mulberry Street into a mid-sized, mixed-use project.

“It’s been so encouraging to witness the ongoing public-private investment in downtown’s west side,” said William H. Cole, president and CEO of the BDC.  “This project reactivates highly-visible, dormant  properties through private sector investment and brings new retail and residential options, continuing to make this area a more attractive and active neighborhood.”

Howard Station will feature more than 17,800 square feet of ground floor retail space and over 64,000 square feet of residential space comprising 83 market-rate rental units.

“Our team is pleased to join the partnership supporting the movement to bring modern relevance to the rich history of downtown Baltimore’s west side,” said Michael Hunter, partner and founder of the Washington Baltimore Development Company.  “As a new gateway destination, the plan is to restore successful street level retail, enhance the pedestrian experience and provide vertical uses that leverage the valuable historic and transit-oriented characteristics of the neighb

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Ed Gunts

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