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Friday, November 29, 2013

Making The Super Block A Little Less Super

 The Westside of Downtown has had many success stories over the past several years such as the rehabs of three of the major Department Stores, Avalon Center-point, Lexington Market back on the upswing, and Camden Court Apartments to name a few. Unfortunately there is still a good amount of blight in Downtown's Westside and most of that can be traced back to the ill fated "Super Block." The Super Block, bordered by Fayette St, Howard St., Lexington St., and Park Avenue/Liberty St. is almost completely boarded up and nobody wants to touch it.
The City's in a bit of quandary because other projects in Downtown's Westside have stalled because of the Super Block but at the same time nobody wants to touch the Super Block. It's been this way for quite some time now and I'm afraid the City has reached an impasse. I still think the Super Block is prime Real Estate because of those three magic words; location location location so hows about we make the Super Block a little less super?
Plans to redevelop the Super Block can be traced all the way back to the 1990s Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decided that he had to destroy the Westside of Downtown in order to save it. Preservationists fought him tooth and nail and eventually won. What did they win exactly? They won what is now the Super Block, although the buildings have beautiful architecture, their practicality in luring big Retailers has proven to be impossible. Could it be that now Retailer wants to be the first one to test the waters? If that were the case I certainly wouldn't blame them. Could it be developers who think the project is to big to risk that kind of investment on? Again, I wouldn't blame them if that were the case? Could it have been the City who has insisted on selling the project as an all or nothing deal? 
I think the fact that the Super Block has been an all or nothing deal has been a major hindrance in its come back. Not helping matters is the fact that the footprints of the buildings are so old and not conducive to a modern Retailer's needs. Do I think these architectural gems should be demolished for that fact and replaced with the cookie cutter big box Retail that has just opened in Canton Crossing? Absolutely not. Just like with the all or nothing impasse, I think an agreement can be reached. 
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake has withdrawn the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Super Block saying that the project is too big for just one developer especially during these economic times where developers and lenders aren't taking such high risks. I personally agree that the project is too large but that begs the question; Where do we go from here? I mean just because the project is too large isn't an excuse to allow the Super Block to just sit and decay. I think that it's time to break up the Super Block into smaller "mini districts" that will each have its own strengths and weaknesses to play off of.
First we have the 100 Block of Howard St. I would propose that this be the first piece of the Super Block to tackle. On the west side of the 100 block of Howard St. one can see success stories such as the Atrium, and Avalon Center-point. Also with the Light Rail running right through it, this can be touted as TOD. Although there are success stories on the west side of the 100 block of Howard St., there are some opportunities. There are some Retail vacancies that I believe are a direct result of the Super Block side being neglected. As a result, I think it only fair that the City make an (RFP) for both sides of the 100 block of Howard St. so both sides can grow together. 
Next, we have Lexington St. Lexington St. has reopened to vesicular traffic through the Super Block in hopes of luring a developer. So far no dice. For Lexington St. in the Super Block as well as the few blocks west of it I want to name the "Lexington District" making it form as a "Gateway" to Lexington Market. In fact I would like to reopen Lexington Market from Park Avenue/Liberty St. all the way to Charles St. This create an energy from Charles Center all the way to Lexington Market. I think the two pillars of Downtown being linked together via Lexington St. will make the Lexington St. side of the Super Block all the more attractive. 
The Park Avenue/Liberty St.side of the Super Block may not come to fruition quite yet. In fact, due to the state of neglect that Park Avenue is in I would to see blocks to the north rehabbed/redeveloped first. Why those blocks first? I would like play on the fact that park Avenue is just a few blocks west of Mount Vernon Place. That part of Park Avenue is in great shape and I would like to extend that energy further south and eventually all the way to the Super Block.
When the Super Block portion of Park Avenue/Liberty St. is finally addressed I would like to see it well connected to Charles Center. In fact I would name that section "Charles Center West." When Charles Center was built in the 1960s and '70s, it walled itself off from the decaying parts of Downtown like the Super Block. Although this was beneficial to Charles Center, it further contributed to the decay of the Super Block. I believe that opening up Charles Center so to speak will contribute in the renewal efforts of the Super Block.
So what have we accomplished so far? So far we have managed to make the Super Block a little less super by breaking it up into three smaller projects that should appear less daunting to Retailers and Developers, but what have we done to make the buildings themselves more appealing? I think that some interior demolition is unavoidable. The buildings are just too narrow to lure Retailers as they are now. The front facades will remain as they are but in the back the buildings will be modernized and redeveloped to mimic the footprint of cookie cutter Retail like Canton Crossing (pictured above). A perfect example of this type of redevelopment is going on right now on Broadway with "The Market Place at Fells Point." And wouldn't you know it? Market Place at Fells Point is being built around another public market; Broadway Market. If the Super Block mimicked that by being built around Lexington Market we just have a winner here.
The Super Block is currently at a stand still. Most people believe (myself included) that the Super Block is just too super and breaking it up may begin to lure Retailers and Developers to this diamond in the rough. 

1 comment:

Juan Mazel said...

My idea for the vacated Social Security building (SSB)would be to use it as "bait" to move tenants from under-used real estate that could have much better uses.

The city would probably have to either acquire the SSB or partner with the GSA to make this happen.

Downtown is in need of more small urban parks and what better way to create parks than to clear out some under-used parcels.

Here's a few under utilized areas that come to mind;

- Moving State of Maryland offices into the SSB would create a lot of possibilities. A nice big urban park could be possible if there were no need for surface parking lots between N. Eutaw & Madison Ave. Bolton Hill is a nice area and would only be strengthened by a nice residential area to the south. Could extend a tree-lined N. Eutaw street further toward downtown and other nice parks in and around that area. Maybe that area would be better off as residential instead of the stalled plan to redevelop that area.

- 205 W Centre St could be demolished along with all the surface parking lots surrounding it. The block is bounded by W Franklin, N Howard St, W Centre St & Park Ave. An Urban parks may just what that area needs.

- Steadman Station Firehouse could be demolished (Bromo Seltzer tower left)and replaced with a small urban park. That area would be much better served by a park and firetrucks may be more effective located next to MLK, next the the SSB.

- University of Maryland Medical school may want to swap some properties in exchange for the Social Security Admin building too.

- There's also been talk of making the existing 1st Mariner Arena an urban park, to include nearby properties at the Charles Center. Moving existing tenants from there to 301 Green St, from the Charles Center could make at least one phase of an urban park a reality.