Battle Over Preservation of Civil Rights Site in Baltimore Ends

A plan to save two walls of the former Read's-drugstore building, the site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in by Morgan State students, was accepted.

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Read's drugstore circa 1955. (Baltimore Museum of Industry/Google)

Edward Gunts of the Baltimore Sun is reporting that developers of the $150 million Lexington Square project planned for Baltimore's west side cleared a key hurdle Tuesday when Baltimore's preservation commission voted to give preliminary approval to a plan to save two exterior walls of the former Read's drugstore as part of the project, rather than requiring preservation of the entire structure.

After hearing more than three hours of testimony, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, voted 9-1 to accept a plan from Lexington Square Partners and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to save the north and west facades of the former Read's building, the site of a 1955 lunch counter sit-in by Morgan State University students that had national significance for the U.S. civil rights movement.

CHAP also voted, 8-2, to hold off on attempting to add any adjacent buildings to the city's landmark list so that the developers could complete their plans for the project. The developers must still come back to CHAP for final approval of their plans for restoring the facades. But Tuesday's votes means that they can get construction permits and move forward, which is expected to bring 750 permanent jobs to the city. Gunts reports, "CHAP needs to allow this project to move forward," said Rawlings-Blake. "We can't afford any more delays. We need jobs."

The plans call for 178,000 feet of retail space, 300 apartments, a 120-room hotel and 725 parking spaces.The Lexington Square developers had originally planned to raze the building to make way for their project. Last month, CHAP voted to grant temporary landmark status to the city-owned building. After preservationists and civil rights advocates objected to the demolition plans, the developers agreed to save the two exterior walls of the old building and to find other ways to commemorate the sit-in.

That's a good thing. Jobs are absolutely needed, but getting rid of historic civil rights sites is completely unacceptable. The developers could have and should have kept the historic site intact -- as much as possible, anyway. How are you going to call the area a "superblock" and remove what's super about it?

Residents and city leaders should have had the entire building designated a historic site years ago to avoid this conflict. Not doing so diminishes the historic value of the site and its contribution to the civil rights movement. While this solution is far from optimal -- two walls -- it is better than nothing.

It will be interesting how developers who had initially planned to level the building will go about "preserving" the two walls and commemorating the site. Hopefully they'll ask for input from the city's residents and involved parties like Morgan State's alums before they do anything.

Read more at the Baltimore Sun.

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