Parking garage defies 1971 plan

Aesthetic screening requirement raised in Little Italy

February 02, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

From the moment the new garage opened last year at a prominent entry to Little Italy, Clinton Bamberger winced. He wondered why the city didn't at least require a little cosmetic work to make the seven-level structure less intrusive.

In fact, the city should have. But it took Bamberger, a retired lawyer who lives in the nearby Scarlett Place condominiums, to notice.

The garage, he discovered, does not have a roof or screening, as required under a legally binding city plan meant to help ensure attractive development at Inner Harbor East.

Chagrined officials acknowledge that no one at the city checked the 30-year-old renewal plan before approving the garage at the corner of Pratt and President streets.

"It was overlooked," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. "People miss things," he added.

Bamberger's find has set off a chain reaction: The city plans to talk to the garage operator about retrofitting it; the Cordish Co. is modifying designs for its proposed garage between Scarlett Place and the Columbus Center; and BDC officials promise to follow the plan from now on.

The revelation that the city did not check the plan before approving a prominent building dismays the head of the City Council's land-use committee. "One wonders how many other things have been done without enforcement," said Councilwoman Lois A. Garey.

Detractors of the brick-and-concrete garage - which bears a "Gateway to Little Italy" sign - say it mars the landscape. "Just the aesthetics of it - you can see that garage coming down Pratt Street and President Street," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation.

Embry was city housing commissioner in 1971 when the Inner Harbor East plan was adopted. "We were very concerned about parking garages being more attractive," he said.

Over time, numerous exceptions have been made to the city's many renewal plans. For example, the City Council amended the Inner Harbor East plan in 1997 so the Marriott Waterfront Hotel could exceed height limits and build "open" parking without a roof.

Some harbor-area garages are not exempt but do not appear to comply, according to BDC, though officials do not know how that happened. Other garages might comply partly, with a roof but no screening.

One problem, BDC officials say, is that the urban renewal plans are vague. For instance, the plans do not say what "screened" means.

Other downtown garages might offer guidance. At St. Paul Plaza at 200 St. Paul Place, parking is concealed behind brick. At the Alex. Brown tower at 1 South St., the building's skin hides parking.

Not so at Pratt and President. The parking garage is brightly lit at night, Scarlett Place residents say, and not screened in any sense.

Annoyed at the proliferation of garages, the condominium association hired lawyer John C. Murphy to see if Cordish's garage could be stopped. Murphy concluded it could not, and Bamberger agreed.

One day Bamberger decided to read the urban renewal plan. In Section G, he read with some excitement that new parking garages "shall be enclosed within structures and roofed, so as to be screened from public view."

Bamberger knows the law. Once a member of the firm of Piper & Marbury, he left in 1965 to head Legal Services Corp., which represents poor people. Later he ran for state attorney general, helped get a man off death row and advocated for safe housing.

Now 75, he and his wife, Katharine, live on the 10th floor at Scarlett Place, where brick lattice mostly conceals parking from view on President Street.

Bamberger scoffed at the notion that he had unearthed some long-buried document. "I just read it," he said. But he gives BDC the "benefit of the doubt," assuming the agency was just sloppy.

Brodie said his staff should have read the plan. "Certainly no one brought it to my attention or I would have brought it up immediately with the developer." Now, he said, "we are sensitized to the issue."

Other agencies, including the Planning Department, played a minor role in the approval process. The city's Design Advisory Panel reviewed the garage several times, but it focuses on aesthetics, not urban renewal plans.

Andrew Frank, BDC's executive vice president, noted that the issue "was never raised by the community and not picked up in the design review process." Nor was the design firm, Hord Coplan Macht, notified: "No one pointed it out," said architect Lee Driskill.

Brodie said the city will wait until the Cordish garage plays out before deciding what changes to request of PMI, the company that runs the Pratt and President garage. Until then, there is no sign the city will revoke the occupancy permit, as Bamberger suggested. Representatives of PMI did not return calls seeking comment.

Driskill, also working on the Cordish project, said louver-like slats will go on the east side of the new garage to hide the cars and allow air to circulate. He said no roof is planned despite the stipulations of the plan. Scarlett Place residents, many of whom fear the new garage will detract from views in harbor-side units, are talking with Cordish about the design.

In response to an interview request, Blake Cordish sent an e-mail to The Sun saying he respected residents but had a "different interpretation" of the plan. He said he is "very optimistic a mutually acceptable solution will be reached shortly."

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