USF&G's plan to raze old building, construct office-retail center angers Mount Washington

March 15, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Community leaders are fuming over USF&G Corp.'s plans to demolish a 19th-century stone building it owns on the edge of Mount Washington Village and develop the land for a 25,000-square-foot office-retail center.

Residents and merchants say they oppose razing the building known as the Provincial House, in the 5700 block of Smith Ave. because it's part of the historic character of a community that boasts some of the most eclectic architecture in Baltimore.

"I think it's appalling," said Elsie Fergusson, a resident who owns Something Else, a women's clothing boutique a few blocks from the Provincial House.

Executives of the insurance giant told community leaders last week that they want to move ahead as quickly as possible with their plans, which they say will benefit the community. But the company faces a fight from the City Council and the Mount Washington Improvement Association.

Residents say the development plans increase their concerns about traffic congestion and a scarcity of parking spaces in the village; they worry that a modern building will ruin quaint Mount Washington's character.

They also say they're alarmed by what they view as USF&G branching out into the commercial real estate business and cashing in on Mount Washington's allure.

"You can see why they like the neighborhood. It's charming. They've abandoned downtown, now they want to move downtown into our residential and historic neighborhood," said Paul Hanley, who lives a block away from the Provincial House.

"We're dealing with somebody who is trying to maximize the value of their property and shouldn't be given any special treatment based on who they are," said Jim Jacobs, president of the improvement association.

The 1883, gray stone Victorian house was once a convent, but now houses the Mount St. Agnes Theological Center for Women, which rents the building and adjacent parking lot from USF&G.

A stream runs behind it along a group of majestic old trees. To the east is a light rail stop. Across the street is an old Enoch Pratt Free Library branch that has been converted into Baltimore Clayworks.

Jay Erbe, vice president of administrative services at USF&G, said his company views the development plan as a positive addition to Mount Washington.

"We look at this spot as an amenity to the existing village area as well as an amenity to our employees," he said, adding that USF&G is willing to contribute the demolition cost to anyone willing to move the building and preserve it elsewhere.

But he said his company is not willing to save the building because it has asbestos in the basement and asbestos shingles on an addition.

The company hopes to get City Council approval by the end of summer, Mr. Erbe added.

But it faces a hurdle in the council, which must amend a Planned Unit Development, or blueprint, for the USF&G property before the Provincial House can be razed.

Last year, amid community opposition, the council approved a 925-space parking garage to accommodate 750 employees scheduled to move from downtown to USF&G's campus the former Mount St. Agnes College this year.

City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who heads a council land use committee that must approve the demolition, said USF&G )) pressured the council to approve the garage, using veiled threats that the company might leave town if the city didn't agree.

But now, said Mr. Ambridge, he is not inclined to approve their development plans.

"I'm not going to tip the tables to destabilize the community just to meet somebody's bottom line. I'm tired of corporate blackmail," Mr. Ambridge said this week.

Mr. Ambridge and 5th District Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said they won't consider the plans until the city completes a transportation study for the area, which many consider overburdened with traffic.

Helen Holton, another 5th District council member, said she opposes the building's demolition.

"I think their plans can be modified [so as] not to destroy a landmark," she said.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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