Owner loses bid to raze Peabody Book Shop building Commissioners say vote is designed to discourage 'demolition by neglect'

June 22, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Taking its strongest step yet to help preserve the old Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube, a city commission voted yesterday to deny the owner's request for a demolition permit.

Members of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) listened to nearly four hours of testimony before unanimously rejecting an application to raze the four-story building at 913 N. Charles St. The commission voted last month to designate it a "contributing building" within the Mount Vernon historic district, which means it cannot be razed without the panel's consent.

Although the building has been vacant for nearly 10 years, it was for decades the home of a book shop and tavern whose patrons included H. L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as an eclectic mix of artists, musicians and poets.

The owner -- 913 North Charles Limited Partnership -- argued that the building is structurally unsound and economically unfeasible to rehabilitate. It said it would be an economic hardship to repair and maintain.

But several developers testified that they believe it would be possible to make a profit by rehabilitating and leasing the building, using state and federal tax credits for historic preservation and other subsidies and incentives.

Before voting, several commissioners argued that the building deteriorated because the owner failed to maintain it adequately -- and did not even repair holes in the roof that let in the elements.

They said that if they allowed the owner to tear the building down now, they would only be rewarding it for its negligence, and encouraging "demolition by neglect" by other property owners.

"I think it would be a mistake for CHAP to approve this application. It would send a message that this body, which is charged with protecting the city's historical and architectural heritage, would condone demolition by neglect," said Commissioner and City Council member John Cain.

When a demolition permit request is rejected, owners may appeal the decision in city Circuit Court.

C. Edward Hitchcock, an attorney for the owner, said he will consult with the group's principals.

"We think the outcome is flatly erroneous and is contrary to the entire presentation," Hitchcock said. "It's clear that they made their decision before hearing one shred of evidence."

At the same time, Hitchcock said, the owner still is willing to lease the building for $1 for 99 years to anyone with a sound rehabilitation plan and the means to carry it out.

The partnership that owns the building includes the lead principals of Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet, one of Baltimore's largest architecture firms, and a company that has been a leader in restoring old buildings. None of the C&D principals attended the meeting.

Commissioner Nicholas Fessenden said he was not persuaded by the owner's attorneys.

"Their evidence was not compelling," he said. "Clearly, a profit can be made from the building. It may not be the profit the owners want. They may want a higher profit. But it's clear a profit can be made."

In recent weeks, several groups have expressed interest in developing properties around the Peabody building. Four teams want to renovate the Queen Anne Belvedere apartments in the 1200 block. A local group plans a restaurant and microbrewery in the 1100 block. Attorney Stephen L. Miles bought a building at the southwest corner of Charles and Biddle streets to house law offices.

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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