A non-profit preservation group is urging city residents to join in its crusade to block downtown redevelopment plans that would demolish several historic edifices, most notably, an old drug store that was the site of a civil rights sit-in.

Baltimore Heritage Inc., a historic preservation advocacy organization, has asked the city to reevaluate a $150 million development project called Lexington Square that would bulldoze at least 17 landmarks in the blighted West downtown area known as Superblock.

For several years, city officials have sought to revitalize the area, which was once a bustling retail corridor.

Deepening the area’s legacy, one of its structures, the old Read’s Drug Store, was the site of an impromptu sit-in staged by Morgan College students in 1955 that eventually led to the desegregation of all the company’s city stores. “We want to preserve the amazing stories and in order to keep telling them these buildings have to remain,” Eli Poisson of Baltimore Heritage said at a panel presentation Feb. 21.

The Read’s store should be an “asset not a barrier” to the area’s revitalization, he added.

Preliminary sketches of the development plan call for partial or complete demolition of several standing structures to make way for a mix of retail shops, apartments, hotels and offices. Read’s is charted for total demolition.

Dr. Helena Hicks, one of the Morgan students involved in the consequential sit-in, said she doesn’t want to see the notable structure demolished and forgotten like the historic strip in Oldtown, the first Baltimore locale to boost Black-owned businesses. That area’s buildings were razed in 1997. “Now it is a cement block,” she said. “All that Black history has been demolished for no reason … for ‘revitalization,’ that’s always the magic word.

“Read’s drugstore is an opportunity to at least recognize the African-American community or at least recognize civil rights.”

Nevertheless, Read’s has been inhabitable for over a decade as its interior has deteriorated, posing a major hurdle in its full restoration. The historic lunch table, where Hicks and her classmates once sat, no longer exists.

The Lexington Square Partners, Superblock’s developers, say they want input from the public on how to create a feasible commemoration for Read’s. “This is a great opportunity to do some important work here,” said John Majors of Dawson Co., the development arm of Lexington Square Partners. He says his team, which is Black-owned, has close ties to the civil rights movement and are committed to honoring the store.

Bailey Pope, who leads the company’s design efforts, said the preservation concerns have foiled plans to move forward with the project, which was set to break ground this summer and open for business next year. “We are very eager to bring jobs and opportunities to live and work here,” Pope said.

He says the company searched public records before drafting a project proposal and found no documents reflecting the historic nature of the Superblock’s edifices.

Read’s store has garnered widespread attention in recent weeks, even making national headlines. The city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation recommended that Baltimore officials revoke its agreement with Lexington Square in order to keep the buildings intact and dozens of city middle-schoolers picketed outside the historic drugstore in protest of its demolition last weekend.

The Mayor is reportedly searching for a compromise between preservationists and developers and has formed a taskforce chaired by Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore, to examine the issue.

Poisson said Baltimore Heritage will schedule another public presentation on Read’s in coming weeks.

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO