Late-night injunction stops demolition of downtown site

Preservationists plead to judge at home after wrecking ball swings

September 20, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STUFF

It was a late-night legal scramble worthy of a death-row inmate. An attorney sped to a judge's home at 10:30 p.m. to appeal for an emergency injunction. Protesters stood in vigil. Fliers cried for justice.

But the subject of the marches, chants and placards reading "Outrage!" wasn't a person facing the electric chair.

It was a pair of vacant, nearly 100-year-old office buildings in downtown Baltimore that a developer started demolishing Monday to build a 125-room Marriott Residence Inn hotel.

In an economically depressed city that often seems torn between its need for economic development and its romance with history, the drama of 17 Light St. and 109 E. Redwood St. shows how high passions can run for even old buildings that have been empty for years.

"They don't build 'em like they used to! Honk if you love old buildings," preservationist Martin Perschler screamed at traffic on Light Street yesterday, his voice hoarse, as rain drenched 20 protesters in front of the partially demolished Merchants and Miners Transportation Co. building at 17 Light St.

Developers led by Donald J. Urgo & Associates on Dec. 23, 1999, received a permit to demolish that building and the adjacent 1916 Sun Life Insurance Co. building, to build a Marriott hotel designed for extended stays.

Preservationists have filed several legal actions to try to appeal or stay the demolition, arguing that it would destroy the architectural landscape of the city's financial district, which was once called the "Wall Street of the South."

The appeals to city government and the Circuit Court have failed, but the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis on Monday scheduled a Nov. 14 hearing on a request to appeal the permit. . Preservationists had already scheduled a protest rally beside the buildings for noon yesterday, calling for Marriott to reconsider the demolitions.

But late Monday afternoon, a Berg Corp. demolition crew closed off Redwood Street and began smashing the ornate, five-story Merchants building with a wrecking ball.

At about 9:30 p.m., an Orioles fan walking back to his car from a game at Camden Yards phoned the lawyer for Preservation Maryland, John Murphy, and told him that demolition had begun.

Worried that their pending appeal would be moot if the building no longer existed, Murphy and Preservation Maryland President Tyler Gearhart drove to the Guilford home of Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. at about 10:30 p.m. They persuaded him to sign a temporary injunction that would halt the demolition.

It wasn't a normal court hearing. Murphy pleaded his case wearing shorts and sandals. Moylan listened in a cardigan sweater.

No attorneys for the developers were present, which struck Urgo lawyer Charles Hirsch as unfair when he heard about it yesterday.

Murphy and Gearhart sped to the demolition site and handed the injunction to the crane operator, who halted at about 10:45 p.m., after gaping holes had been ripped in the building's top two floors.

As rats from the demolition site scurried around their feet, Urgo and the preservationists argued and paced back and forth until past midnight, when a city inspector and two police officers arrived.

Yesterday at noon, protesters marched in front of the partially demolished building, holding signs reading "Marriott's Midnight Outrage."

The Marriott franchise, Halpern/Urgo Venture LLC, issued this written statement: "Having been delayed for months, we must expedite this project or risk losing a critical financing commitment that is scheduled to expire in December. ... Claims that we acted under cover of darkness are irresponsible. ... Work continued through the evening and night to minimize disruption and potential hazards to Baltimore's busy downtown."

Jon Laria, an attorney for the developers, said that the project promises to boost the downtown economy and bring life to buildings that had been on the market for four years.

Gearhart said that preservationists don't want to halt economic development, but to redirect it toward the renovation and re-use of older buildings whose distinctive architecture make the city more competitive with the suburbs.

The Abell Foundation, a philanthropic organization, has offered to buy the buildings from Urgo and hire a developer who would save the buildings, said Robert C. Embry Jr., foundation president.

Redwood Street will remain closed for the next few days, the demolition halted and the sidewalks piled with rubble, as the parties argue over the injunction in court.

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