Properties at 101 W. Lexington Street; and 220, 222, 224 and 226 W. Fayette Street, that are targeted for demolition. Photo by Ed Gunts.
Properties at 101 W. Lexington Street; and 220, 222, 224 and 226 W. Fayette Street, that are targeted for demolition. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Why is Baltimore City getting requests to demolish so many historic buildings on the west side of downtown?

The question came up this month during a meeting of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), after two developers sought permission to tear down eight buildings that commissioners previously deemed “contributing” structures within the city’s Five & Dime Historic District, to make way for new construction. 

The panel ultimately approved “full demolition” of three buildings; turned down a request to raze two buildings; and granted demolition for two more with the condition that the developer reconstruct their front facades and incorporate them into the replacement structure proposed for the site. The rebuilt facades will be like “patches on a jacket,” one commissioner said.

While CHAP entertains demolition requests at many of its monthly meetings, the number of structures targeted for demolition this month, all in one part of the city, was unusually high. But city officials say it is not a coincidence and that more demolition requests are likely to come for historic buildings in the same area.

A primary reason that CHAP is receiving the demolition requests, according to one official, is that the city’s development arm has been working to rejuvenate vacant or underused buildings in the historic district for more than a decade and the easiest projects have largely been done. The low-hanging fruit is gone.  

What’s left, planners say, are dilapidated buildings that aren’t as easy to rehab for a variety of reasons, from size to condition to location. It’s harder to find an economically-viable preservation strategy for them, and they have languished.

Further complicating matters is that the longer that vacant buildings sit, the more they tend to deteriorate, and that makes them even more difficult and costly to redevelop.

Part of the reason for the demolition requests is “we’re ten years into this effort of trying to get these properties redeveloped,” said Dan Taylor, Managing Director — Business and Neighborhood Development at the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), during CHAP’s Aug. 8 demolition hearing.

While some buildings in historic districts are good candidates for rehabilitation, “we knew that someday we were going to end up in a hearing like this,” he said. “Sometimes there are buildings that need to be demolished.”

“We are now dealing with buildings that have sat for many years,” said CHAP executive director Eric Holcomb. “When that happens, buildings deteriorate. We’re seeing more and more buildings come to us in worse condition, and that’s why we’re seeing more requests for demolition.”

The demolition requests at the recent CHAP meeting were from Westside Partners, which asked to tear down five ‘contributing’ buildings at the northeast corner of Howard and Fayette streets to make way for part of its multi-phase, mixed-use Compass redevelopment (and basically got approval for all five), and developer Chukuemeka “Chukes” Okoro of Okoro Development, which asked to raze three buildings to make way for a six-story apartment building at the northeast corner of Park Avenue and Lexington Street (and got approval to tear down one of the three.)

Westside Partners asked to demolish the buildings at 220, 222 and 224 W. Fayette St. and 105 and 107 N. Howard St. to make way for a new structure. Okoro asked the raze 114 W. Lexington St., 116-120 W. Lexington St. and 207-209 Park Ave. All eight properties are currently owned by the City of Baltimore, which sought redevelopment proposals and selected Westside Partners and Okoro to acquire them. The developers need CHAP’s approval before the city will sell the properties.

A three-story building at 114 W. Lexington St. Photo by Ed Gunts.
A three-story building at 114 W. Lexington St. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Taylor, from the BDC, told the preservation panel at the hearing that his agency supports both developers in their demolition requests, and he gave the commissioners an overview of the situation as he sees it, to explain his agency’s stance.

Taylor said he has been with the BDC since 2013 and he manages the Request for Proposals (RFP) process by which his agency, acting on behalf of the city, offers properties for redevelopment. The process gives companies an opportunity to compete for a chance to acquire and redevelop city-owned real estate by responding to solicitations issued by the BDC. It has been used successfully since the early days of Charles Center.

In these RFPs, the BDC isn’t just looking for a monetary offer from prospective developers. The BDC asks for detailed proposals that outline what the developer proposes to do with a given property and then determines if it the proposals are responsive to the terms of the RFP.

Responsive proposals are evaluated by the BDC staff, which forwards its analysis to the BDC’s board of directors. The BDC board meets in closed session to discuss the proposals and choose one to recommend that the city accept. Its recommendation is forwarded to the mayor and the city’s spending panel, the Board of Estimates, for final approval.

If more than one bidder submits a “responsive” offer, BDC board members make a selection based on which proposal they believe has the greatest potential for advancing the city’s goals for the area the property is in and the best chance of getting built, based on the proposer’s track record and other factors. In developers’ parlance, they look for the proposal that represents the “highest and best use” for a property. If the BDC doesn’t get any offers that it deems responsive, the agency may try again by issuing another RFP, after waiting a certain amount of time and perhaps modifying the terms of the offering.

Four solicitations for the Superblock 

At the CHAP hearing this month, Taylor recounted the BDC’s efforts over the past decade to find appropriate developers for the parcels where Westside Partners and Okoro proposed to raze “contributing” buildings. In both cases, he said, the agency solicited proposals multiple times before getting to the point where it is now.

Before selecting Westside Partners’ proposal for the Compass in 2020, he said, the BDC offered properties near the corner of Howard and Lexington streets three other times over the past two decades.

In 2007, he said, the city entered into an agreement with a group called Lexington Square Partners, which proposed to develop much of the property that was later awarded to Westside Partners, a parcel containing more than a dozen buildings, bounded roughly by Fayette, Howard and Lexington streets and Park Avenue.  The previous project was dubbed ‘the Superblock,’ and the developers proposed “entirely new construction, with almost no preservation whatsoever,” Taylor said.

When the Lexington Square development failed to move ahead, he said, “the city terminated that agreement and was mired in a lawsuit that extended for many years. Eventually that lawsuit was dismissed in July or August of 2015. At the end of August 2015, we released a new RFP for all of these properties.”

Before releasing a new RFP, Taylor said, the agency rethought the way it sought bids given the lack of progress made by the previous group. This time, he said, it structured the offering so that all of the properties wouldn’t necessarily end up with one developer, as occurred with Lexington Square Partners.

“We very clearly set up this RFP to not be a Superblock, and we offered up the properties so that developers could bid on a single property, some of the properties, or all of the properties,” Taylor said. “It was intended to be a process that maximized the number of feasible proposals that could be done, including the number of feasible proposals that could take on single-building rehabilitation.”

The only responses in 2015, Taylor said, “were from small developers that were trying to take on small buildings — one small building on Park Avenue, another one on Howard Street…We did advance one of those. The other one we were not able to ultimately agree with.”

In 2017, he said, the BDC tried again and issued a proposal for the former Brager-Gutman department store at 201-211 W. Lexington St., built in 1929 and the first store downtown to feature escalators. The city received an acceptable proposal and entered into negotiations with a developer, Taylor said, but the deal ultimately fell through.

In 2019, the BDC sought proposals for the area a fourth time, and again tweaked its strategy by offering some buildings in groups rather than as individual properties. This is the offering that attracted the Compass proposal from Westside Partners.

“This time we issued the site in assemblages,” Taylor said. “So again, it was not an offer for: you have to take the whole block, but we started to group [properties] based on what seemed like rational development chunks of kind of small to medium scale that the developers could take on. I believe we had six assemblages. We actually issued two RFPs, a north block RFP and a south block RFP. The properties that we are talking about today are in the south block RFP.”

‘Set up for this to happen’

One member of the preservation panel, Kuo Pao Lian, asked how the BDC decided what constitutes an ‘assemblage.’

“We tried to look at, yes, were they attached, but also where floor plates lined up and where uses seemed to potentially make sense,” Taylor said. “For example, I believe we had Read’s [the former drug store at Howard and Lexington streets] in an assemblage” with two buildings adjacent to it.

In none of the previous offerings, Taylor said, had any developers submitted a proposal to rehab the buildings at 220, 222 and 224 W. Fayette St., three of the ‘contributing’ structures that Westside Partners asked to demolish.

Lian said the decision to offer buildings in groups may have inadvertently been inviting bids from developers who would want to tear the buildings down, because the assembled groups of buildings have a larger footprint with more potential for new construction than the individual properties by themselves.

“The way that you grouped it almost sets up the fact that you will have to demo and build bigger buildings,” Lian observed. “It was set up for this to happen.”

Taylor said two of the properties offered in 2019 were intentionally not made part of a larger assemblage in the hope that they would attract standalone rehabilitation proposals. Part of the goal, he said, was “to try to encourage smaller developers to get an opportunity to preserve and rehabilitate some of these buildings.”

Lexington and Park

The corner parcel at Lexington Street and Park Avenue was also offered for development three times – in 2014, 2018 and 2021 — before it was awarded to Okoro Development in 2022.

The parcel consists of a three-story building at 114 W. Lexington St. that once served as the entry to a theater called The Garden; a four-story commercial building at 207-209 Park Ave. that has been damaged by fire; and the former Ann Lewis department store at 116-120 W. Lexington St., a four-story structure built in 1941 with mostly windowless facades on both Lexington Street and Park Avenue.

Taylor recounted BDC’s efforts to find a developer for those buildings.

In 2014, he said, they were offered in a group as part of a larger package of six assemblages called the Liberty Clay Marion RFP, named after streets in the area.

Properties at 101 W. Lexington Street; and 220, 222, 224 and 226 W. Fayette Street, that are targeted for demolition. Photo by Ed Gunts.
Properties at 101 W. Lexington Street; and 220, 222, 224 and 226 W. Fayette Street, that are targeted for demolition. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Of the six groupings of buildings in the Liberty Clay Marion offering, he said, five of the parcels have been awarded to bidders and are now redeveloped. They include the former Peanut Shoppe property 101 W. Lexington St., which was awarded to Okoro, and a parking lot at 216 N. Liberty St. that is now occupied by the L on Liberty apartment building.

The former office building at 109 W. Lexington St. was part of the Liberty Clay Marion offering and was not initially awarded to a developer. The city sought proposals again in 2016 and awarded it to Okoro, who has converted the upper floors to apartments with commercial space at street level.

The only assemblage in the 2014 offering that hasn’t been successfully redeveloped today, Taylor said, is the group of three buildings at Lexington Street and Park Avenue.  For this parcel, “we did not award it at that time because we did not feel like there were developable proposals that were received out of that RFP,” he said.

The buildings at Lexington Street and Park Avenue were offered again in 2018, Taylor said. “We only received responses for new construction. There was no rehabilitation proposed by any respondent. We did not select that project to move forward at that time.”

The BDC issued another RFP for the properties in 2021.

 “We again only received responses for new construction or, in one case, new construction except for little bits of rehabilitation where it was feasible,” Taylor said. The city did not award the properties at that time.

‘Make the case’

The BDC sought proposals again in 2022 and this time awarded the three buildings to Okoro, with the understanding that whatever he proposed would have to be approved by CHAP.

Taylor said the BDC had notified developers as part of the bidding process that “this area is in a CHAP district and it is subject to their demolition guidelines and so if demolition is part of your proposal, you’re going to need to go and make the case to CHAP.”    

Okoro told the commission this month he always starts from the standpoint of attempting to save a historic building.

“The last thing I want to do is demolish historic buildings, and my experience working in Baltimore shows that,” he told the panel. “The first thing I want to do is renovate and bring it back to life.”

Okoro said he explored ways to save the three buildings, for both residential and non-residential use, but couldn’t find an approach that was economically viable. He said he believes that the only way to bring life and energy to that corner is to replace them.

“My focus is always about how I can reenergize, how I can create economic development opportunities and energy,” he said. But “as tenacious as I am and as creative as I am, I couldn’t find a way to bring [the area] back to life without demolishing them,” he said, referring to the three buildings.

A former Ann Lewis Shops department store at Park Avenue and West Lexington Street. Photo by Ed Gunts.
A former Ann Lewis Shops department store at Park Avenue and West Lexington Street. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Taylor said it has been especially difficult to find a way to rehab the former Ann Lewis department store because it doesn’t have windows above the first floor and also doesn’t have full floors inside. If a developer punched windows in the facade, it would not be the same building that is considered a contributing structure to the historic district, said preservation planner Stacy Montgomery.

The windowless department store is a prime example of a building that has proven difficult to redevelop even as properties around it have been fixed up. In his 10 years at the BDC, Taylor said, he hasn’t been able to find a developer with a viable adaptive reuse strategy.

“The number one question we’ve gotten out of all the RFPs that I’ve done at BDC in my 10 years there is: Can this building be demolished?” he said of the windowless department store. “That’s what we were asked more than anything else. Every response that we’ve received offers up some flavor of demolition and new construction of the corner building.”

Preservationists said they aren’t happy with the demolitions.

Molly Ricks, deputy director of the Baltimore Heritage preservation organization, told the commission that her board members believe that CHAP shouldn’t rely solely on the developers and their own consultants when making decisions about what buildings to preserve, as it has done in numerous casesShe said CHAP should base its decisions on analysis from qualified, independent economists and engineers rather than ones paid by the developers who want a demolition permit.

A four-story building at 207-209 Park Ave. Photo by Ed Gunts.
A four-story building at 207-209 Park Ave. Photo by Ed Gunts.

An “independent, economic evaluation…should be required of all applicants that propose to demolish historic buildings,” she said. “The presumption is that the building can be saved, and only after a qualified and independent evaluation of preservation options should CHAP even consider allowing demolition.”

In reviewing the proposal for Lexington Street and Park Avenue, she said, CHAP has heard what the developer thinks would and wouldn’t be economically feasible, “but we have not heard from any qualified, independent expert on whether there could be redevelopment scenarios that do make economic sense and also could save some or all of the buildings or some parts of some of the buildings. Without this independent evaluation, we urge you to withhold permission to demolish.”

Nicole King, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said she appreciates the two projects Okoro previously completed on the 100 block of West Lexington Street.  She also conceded that the lack of windows “does not make the Ann Lewis building an ideal structure” for apartments. But she said she wasn’t convinced that the developer has tried hard enough to find a use for it.

“I believe we should preserve our Modern historic buildings in Baltimore whenever possible, even those buildings we may not like aesthetically,” she told the commission. “Certainly a creative designer or architect could make something work.” 

After deliberation, the commission approved demolition of the former department store on the corner but not the buildings at 114 W. Lexington St. and 207-209 Park Ave., leaving Okoro unable to proceed with the apartment project he had planned.

More to come?

Taylor said he recounted the BDC’s various offerings to show the efforts that the BDC has made to find developers who will preserve buildings in the historic district and that it doesn’t just accept the first proposal it receives. 

The northeast corner of Howard and Fayette streets, targeted for demolition. Photo by Ed Gunts.
The northeast corner of Howard and Fayette streets, targeted for demolition. Photo by Ed Gunts.

After 10 years and various strategies for soliciting proposals, he said, no one has come up with an economically viable way to rehab the buildings at the northeast corner of Howard and Fayette streets or the northeast corner of Lexington Street and Park Avenue, and that’s why the BDC now backs the demolition requests.

“I wanted to provide that context about our multiple efforts to get these buildings redeveloped, the difficulty in finding either quality developers or quality development proposals that allow us to do so, and to say that I would really like to not have to RFP these buildings a fifth time,” he told the panel.

With CHAP’s votes this month, the team behind the Compass project has a green light to continue refining its plans in preparation for future design review sessions. Okoro said he still hopes he can find a way to move ahead with a project that will bring life to the corner of Lexington Street and Park Avenue.

Holcomb said he believes CHAP will see more requests to demolish historic buildings on the west side of downtown that have so far resisted redevelopment attempts.

Taylor, too, said this likely won’t be the last time he comes before the preservation panel to discuss a demolition proposal.

He said the BDC supported the idea of designating the Five & Dime Historic District when it was proposed in 2018 and he testified before CHAP in support of the legislation that created it.

“It brings me no pleasure…to come up asking for a demolition,” he told the panel. But given the many complex issues involved with attempting to preserve buildings on the west side of downtown, “you’ll probably see me again in the future.”

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

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  1. Unfortunate state of affairs. Locally, the problem is simply a lack of demand for CBD real estate. If there were a demand, even a windowless building could be successfully developed and rented. And if not, then for another use. On top of that, the mixed-use formula of retail at street level, housing and some offices has also become antiquated. While not a fan of only preserving exterior building walls as veneers for new construction, then at least we have *something* left to remind us of former context AND offer a distinction why these districts are special compared to the sea of sprawl that surrounds the city.

    1. Are “patches on a jacket” the new typology/approach for Historic Preservation in the Monumental City ?

  2. Ed – Nice comprehensive overview – need to walk the blocks to understand in detail with a google earth city plan at the same time to understand all of the complex urban relationships you have documented.

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