A rendering of the proposed redevelopment of Read’s Drug Store.

An $11 million plan to renovate the historic Read’s Drug Store on Howard Street has fallen through – in part because of questions about safety and the pace of redevelopment on the west side of downtown.

Spotlighters Theatre, the developer selected by the city, disclosed this week that it has decided not to move ahead with its proposed conversion of the vacant drug store at 123 N. Howard Street to a new performing center.

The building was the site of a 1955 sit-in by Morgan State students protesting that African Americans weren’t served at the lunch counter. The sit-in prompted the Read’s chain to modify its policies and begin serving African Americans at all of its locations.

The City of Baltimore now owns the building. In 2015, through the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city issued a request for proposals from developers interested in renovating it. Last fall, the city selected Spotlighters Theatre to be the developer after it was the only bidder to respond to the request for proposals.

Spotlighters’ proposal called for the Read’s building to be recycled as the “Audrey Herman Community Arts Center,” named after the theater’s founder. Spotlighters would have moved from its current home at 817 St. Paul Street in Mount Vernon.

The Howard Street building has four levels and more than 16,000 square feet of space. Plans called for a 120-seat theater, a workshop, 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.

Working with Cho Benn Holback + Associates as the architect, the theater group also proposed creating a replica of the Read’s lunch counter and a gallery with an exhibit about the 1955 sit in.

But Spotlighters’ executive director said this week that his group has decided not to move ahead with the project on Howard Street and will be looking for another location.

According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, the Spotlighters board had questions about the viability of the Howard Street location, after commissioning a feasibility study by Arts Consulting Group of Washington D.C.

The Sun quoted Spotlighters’ executive director James “Fuzz” Roark as saying the theater’s board was worried about the cost of the renovations and whether Spotlighters could afford it.

Roark told reporter Tim Smith that the theater’s board also had concerns about the pace of revitalization on the west side of downtown.

The outside of the Read’s Drug Store building.
The outside of the Read’s Drug Store building.

“The board was concerned that there aren’t more properties under bid [for renovation] on that block,” Roark was quoted as saying. “We didn’t want to end up being by ourselves for two years. We had to consider if our public would follow us there and feel safe.”

Under president and CEO William Cole, the Baltimore Development Corp. has sought proposals for dozens of properties on the west side of downtown and selected developers for many of them. Everyman Theater, another performing group, was picked to renovate one building on the same block as the Read’s drug store.

But some properties have not attracted acceptable proposals when they are offered, which in turn affects the perceived pace of development. This week, BDC received no bids for two west side properties that were offered in 2016: the former Mayfair Theater at 506 N. Howard Street and the former site of the Franklin-Delphy hotel at 300 W. Franklin Street.

Susan Yum, communications director for BDC, said the agency’s development experts will explore other options for the Read’s building. “We will regroup with the team to determine next steps regarding that property,” she wrote in an email.

The future of west side development will be the subject of a panel discussion next week at the historic Hutzler Brothers Palace Building, whose owners who are exploring ways it can be redeveloped. The session begins on March 15 at 5:30 p.m. at the Hutzler’s building, located at 210-218 N. Howard Street.

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