More demolition likely in city's financial district

URBAN LANDSCAPE

Decision: Though preservationists vow to continue fighting, officials seem likely to allow a developer to build a hotel in the historic area downtown

April 06, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

WITH THE Southern Hotel reduced to rubble, another corner of Baltimore's historic financial district is headed in the same direction.

Despite pleas from local preservationists that the city preserve two buildings near the southeast corner of Redwood and Light streets, housing officials appear likely to allow a Bethesda-based developer to demolish them to make way for a 125-suite hotel.

An administrative panel that met last month to review the case has concluded that the city acted properly in issuing demolition permits for the vacant structures, the former Sun Life Insurance Co. building at 109 E. Redwood St. and the former Fairfax Savings and Loan Building at 17 Light St.

As a result, "the permits will stand," said John Milton Wesley, spokesman for the housing department. "All of the issues have been addressed by the developers. If they have evidence of funding [for the replacement project], there's nothing to prevent them from beginning the process" of demolition.

Two groups, Preservation Maryland and Baltimore Heritage, and property owners, Peter G. and Nancy C. Kimos, appealed the city's decision to issue demolition permits in December.

They argued that the urban renewal plan for Baltimore's financial district calls for the preservation of certain buildings in the area and that issuing demolition permits for 109 E. Redwood St. and 17 Light St. was improper because it was inconsistent with the objectives of the city's own plan.

The appeal triggered a three-hour hearing March 8, in which a panel appointed by Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne was charged with determining whether the city acted properly in issuing the demolition permits.

During the meeting, the preservationists argued that the buildings are historically and architecturally significant and should be recycled rather than razed. They said that if the developers wanted to tear down the buildings, they should have asked the City Council to delete them from the renewal plan. They also commissioned a local architect, Art Kutcher, to prepare renderings showing what the buildings would look like if they were renovated for office use.

Representatives of the developer, Donald J. Urgo & Associates, said they explored ways to save the buildings, at the city's request, but found it was not economically feasible to convert them to a hotel.

The developers noted that the replacement building, an 11-story Residence Inn by Marriott hotel, has been designed to fit in with the older structures along Redwood Street.

The panel promised to send its final report to the housing commissioner within 30 days of the hearing -- by tomorrow.Wesley said the report had not been delivered as of yesterday and could not be released, but the panel's preliminary findings are that the city acted properly in issuing the demolition permits. He said the panel concluded that the city's renewal plan encourages property owners to preserve buildings in the financial district, but does not require it.

No demolition work could begin until the hearing was held and the panel completed a report on its findings. Once the housing commissioner reads and signs the report, Wesley said, the ban on demolition ends.

If the preservationists are dissatisfied with the panel's report, Wesley said, they can make another appeal to the housing commissioner. But he added that the panel determined the commissioner does not have sufficient legal grounds to hold up the demolition. "For her to impede the action would put her in a situation where she could be sued," he said.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, said he was disappointed by the panel's conclusions. "We feel strongly that these buildings should be preserved, and we're going to explore other avenues to ensure that that happens," he said.

Al Barry, a consultant to Preservation Maryland, said he was hopeful that the housing commissioner would overrule the administrative panel and rescind the demolition permits.

"I think the implications are more serious than the staff of the housing department is willing to concede," Barry said. "This is something that Pat Payne has the opportunity to reverse."

If the housing department upholds the demolition permits, Barry said, the preservation groups could appeal the decision to Baltimore Circuit Court.

At the hearing March 8, developer Donald Urgo said his group had obtained financing for its project and is ready to proceed. "Many developers would run away from this neighborhood," he said. "We want to bring new economic life to this district."

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