Even if the entire State Center development project doesn’t move ahead as originally planned, some area residents say they would like to see one part of it, the historic Fifth Regiment Armory, be converted into a grocery store.
Residents gathered at Union Baptist Church in Upton today for a “community discussion” to show their support for construction of such a business inside the old building on Division Street near the intersection of Preston and Howard streets.
The meeting included representatives from the development team that has been working with the state, a group headed by Caroline Moore of Ekistics, and leaders of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of neighborhoods around the 28-acre State Center development parcel.
It took place six weeks after Gov. Larry Hogan and other members of the state’s Board of Public Works voted not to move ahead with the proposed $1.5 billion development and instead study the idea of building an arena there.
The terminated plan, 10 years in the making, called for a mix of offices for state agencies and other spaces, including housing, parking, retail space and a school. The matter is headed to court after state officials started legal proceedings to void the state’s agreement and the developer said it would file suit against the state so it can move ahead with its project.
Today, Moore said the neighborhoods around State Center still need a good grocery store nearby and that her team is prepared to build it. Of all the elements of the mixed-use State Center development, she said, the plan to build a grocery store inside the Armory had some of the strongest support from the community.
At State Center, “we’re in a food desert, we’re in a jobs desert, we’re in a development desert,” she said. “We’re ready to move forward. We want to do what we were going to do.”
Designed by Wyatt and Nolting, the massive stone armory opened in 1901 and still contains offices for the Maryland National Guard. Owned by the state, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Moore said the 300,000-square-foot armory would work well for a grocery store because it’s a landmark building, the main drill hall has 55,000 square feet of column-free space and it’s served by both the city’s Light Rail and Metro Subway lines. She said the conversion would result in the creation of hundreds of jobs.
Moore was joined by community leaders, including the Rev. Alvin Hathaway of Union Baptist Church, Janet Allen, president of the Heritage Crossing Residents Association and John Kyle, a Bolton Hill resident who serves as president of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance. MV+A, part of the architectural team that converted the former Rouse Company headquarters in Columbia to a Whole Foods Market, has done some preliminary design work showing a conversion would be feasible.
Moore declined to say what a grocery store conversion might cost or what grocery store chain might operate a store in the old armory building, but she said more than one has expressed strong interest. the purpose of today’s meeting, she said, was to provide information and show the governor and other state officials that there is strong community backing for a grocery store at State Center. She said the project could open within 16 months from the day the developers get permission to proceed.
“Our hope is to show continuous community support and development momentum in the marketplace for this to occur,” she said. “This is a perfect location for a grocery store…It would be an iconic regional destination.”
State officials were not present at the meeting at Union Baptist Church. They have said the larger State Center project is not financially feasible and they want to explore other options for the state-owned land. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has said she wants to work with Gov. Hogan to get the property redeveloped.
During the meeting, representatives of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance provided postcards for people to mail to the mayor, expressing support for a grocery store inside the armory.
Seventy-three percent of residents in the neighborhoods surrounding State Center live in a food desert with limited access to healthy food options, the postcards said in part.
Kyle, president of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, said much of the recent discussion about State Center has involved government leases and contracts, but many area residents care more about tangible issues such as where they can buy healthy food.
“Everyone has been talking about rents and contracts, but nobody knows what that means,” he said. “Everybody knows what a grocery store means. If we could build it as a standalone project, let’s go ahead with that.”
Besides addressing the need for a full-service grocery store, Kyle said, redeveloping the armory would make the area safer by attracting more people and would provide a recognizable symbol that could give a strong identity to any other development that follows on the State Center footprint.
“When you say, ‘I’m going to the grocery store at The Armory,” everyone will know where you’re going,” he said. “It would be a signature design, and it’s sitting [near] all this public transportation, which would make it so easy to get to.”
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