Charles & 25th Buildings May Yet Have A Future

by Alice Cherbonnier
NOTHING MAKES A FACE look less appealing than missing teeth in a smile. The same holds true for architecture. The visual integrity of a community can be destroyed when incompatible structures jar the eye.
     The Charles Village community, fresh from design negotiations for the Safeway supermarket on the site formerly occupied by Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters and Chesapeake Cadillac, now faces another potential threat to the appearance of the century-old neighborhood.
     CVS, a national chain formerly known as Consumer Value Stores, plans to open a new store on the highly visible corner of North Charles and West 25th Streets. This would represent an investment of over $1 million in the community.
     The problem is, there are already buildings on the site. Four of them, on Charles Street, were damaged by fire several years ago and never rehabilitated. Some of the 25th Street properties still have tenants, while others are vacant.
     At open meetings to review CVS plans, two things became clear: the community welcomes new business, but it also wants to see historic structures preserved as much as possible.
     New Committee: A committee has been set up, with representatives of the Charles Village Civic Association (CVCA), the Charles Village Community Benefits District (CVCBD), and members of the community. It is charged with seeking design solutions in cooperation with the property owners and developers.
     “I think it’s going to be a facade preservation project, not a demolition,” predicted Sheila Rees, president of the CVCA.
     “They seem to understand that everyone voted ‘yes,’ that CVS is welcome, but that the design of the building is very important to us,” said Ms. Rees. “They know we want to preserve the integrity of the building.”
     The committee has gained time to study the situation. The Neighborhood Design Center (NDC), for a fee of $150, is assigning an architect and a structural engineer to evaluate the existing buildings and propose working drawings with specifications and cost estimates.
     Ms. Rees said this work should be completed by the end of October. “Total access to the site has been offered by CVS,” she said.
     “If the existing buildings can be retrofitted, they would need to conform to the specific CVS layout,” she explained. “If not, we have to look at what the alternatives are--how we can preserve the facade in the design without it looking like a stage set from the Wild West.”
     Everyone involved, she said, “wants the best possible thing for our neighborhood.”
     Ed Hargadon, past president and board member of the CVCA, echoed Ms. Rees’ optimism. “I hope that they can retain the integrity of the buildings,” he said. “It’s important for businesses to come in here and be profitable in buildings of a historic nature. We’re hoping CVS will see it can be successful.”
     Construction Concerns: Tom Shafer, president of the Charles Village Community Benefits District, said CVCBD initially held back from involvement in the controversy. “Our concerns have been crime, grime, and economic development, which bring people together, not zoning and preservation, which cause conflicts.”
     A civil engineer who retired as managing partner of Whitman Requardt and Associates at the end of last year, Mr. Shafer takes a dispassionate view of the situation. “It’s very difficult to make retrofitting work without additional financial assistance,” he said. “It’s generally cheaper to tear buildings down than to keep them. Sometimes the mortar’s not good. Sometimes the footings are non-existent.
     “In the case of CVS, they have a minimum square footage needed, and I doubt they’ll get the arrangement they need with the existing buildings. Preserving the facade means building a new wall behind the old one that would support the new roof. That would decrease the amount of [floor] space. So CVS will have some issues to consider.”
     Part of Main Street Maryland: The northwest corner of Charles and 25th Streets was initially thought not to be part of the Maryland Main Street district, a designation announced by the Charles Village Community Benefits District in August. But Ms. Rees said the Main Street area also includes all four corners of the Charles and 25th Street intersection. This means the CVS site is eligible for free advice from national and state economic development professionals.
     Book Block’s Future: The site is the cornerstone of Baltimore’s “Book Block” because of its three used and rare book stores--Kelmscott, Tiber, and BNN. The coming construction affects two of them.
     Tiber has closed its retail store at 8 West 25th Street, but continues to operate as a mail- and internet-order store at 24 West 25th Street, dealing with customers by appointment only. BNN Books, a non-profit store run by volunteers, remains open at 10 West 25th Street. Its managing committee has not decided whether it will be relocating or operating as a “virtual bookstore,” with booths at festivals and sharing space with other businesses.

For information on upcoming community forums about the subject buildings at Charles and 25th Street, call 235-4411.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on Oct. 7, 1998.