Building design is approved

ARCHITECTURE

Mount Vernon apartment plan passes a hurdle

August 12, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The builders seeking to erect an 11-story apartment house in Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district passed a key hurdle last week, when the city's Design Advisory Panel gave final approval to architectural plans for the $17 million project.

But before any construction can begin, they still must receive design approval from Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which has final say over what can be built in city historic districts.

The preservation commission controls the project's fate because the developer, a group headed by T. Conrad Monts, needs city permission to demolish the former Albert Gunther & Co. hardware store buildings, a group of four 1860s-era townhouses at 22-36 W. Biddle St. and 1203 Maryland Ave., to make way for the apartments.

The preservation panel has said it will not grant a demolition permit for the Gunther buildings until it has approved the design of the replacement structure. Its meeting to review the design is tentatively set for next month.

The apartment building, called Maryland Plaza, has been designed by D. R. Brasher of Columbia to contain 153 residences and a top-level garden with an environmentally friendly "living roof" made of grass and other plants. It would be the first midrise apartment building to be constructed in the Mount Vernon area in more than a decade, and it's a sign that the area is becoming more attractive and marketable as a residential district.

Monts told the design advisory panel members that he hopes to obtain all necessary approvals in time to begin construction early this fall and open the building by October 2003. He is seeking no financial assistance from the city. "We would like to move ahead as quickly as possible," he said.

Monts is working with University Properties, a University of Baltimore affiliate that owns the Gunther property. After the Gunther buildings are demolished, University Properties would lease the cleared site to Monts' Washington Development Group for construction of Maryland Plaza.

The building is expected to house University of Baltimore students and others who want to live close to downtown and the Mount Royal cultural district. Monthly rents would range from about $700 for an efficiency to $950 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment. The main entrance would be near the corner of Maryland Avenue and Biddle Street, and different colors on the exterior would help differentiate the base, middle and top.

The project is expected to serve as a precedent of sorts for other historic district parcels where developers might seek permission to raze buildings to make way for new construction. The northeast corner of Charles and Biddle streets, location of the former Danny's restaurant, is another prominent corner being eyed for redevelopment.

Members of the preservation commission have been frustrated in the past by developers who obtain permission to raze buildings in historic districts for a new development but then fail to move ahead with the replacement. In the late 1980s, the panel allowed several historic buildings in the 900 block of North Charles Street to be torn down for an office development, but the project never materialized and the land is still vacant.

The city subsequently instituted a procedure that calls for any new construction planned for a historic district to be reviewed first by Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel and then by the preservation commission. It also wants developers to prove that they have all necessary financing before it will issue any demolition permits.

Because there hasn't been much new construction in Mount Vernon over the past decade - the area's last major residential development was the Waterloo Place apartments in 1991 - Maryland Plaza is one of the first projects to test this procedure.

As part of its decision-making process, the city's preservation commission seeks opinions from community representatives. Jim Suttner, chairman of the architectural review committee of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, said his group approved the schematic design earlier this year and is eager to review the latest plans. He said group members still want more information about proposed materials, colors, exterior lights, mechanical grills, signs, window openings and other specifics.

"We feel at the neighborhood level that there are a lot of details that need to get worked out and worked out well before we're willing to approve it," he said. "There's a level of [design] development that we'd like to see."

One issue has been the appearance of the building's north side, whose upper levels will be visible to drivers headed south on Maryland Avenue. The community panel also wants the developer to use durable masonry materials for the exterior, rather than synthetic products that might not hold up well.

Architect Ron Brasher told the design advisory panel that he has recommended using a panelized wall system in which concrete panels are fabricated to look like bricks. He said the panels will save construction time but won't look any different from brick walls.

"You can't tell the difference," he said.

Suttner said his committee was told the walls would be made of brick.

"That doesn't cut it in my mind," he said of the panel system. "I'd be willing to look at it, but we have an understanding with the developer that it would be made to look like brick. I'm holding him to his promise that it won't be just a bare bones, suburban-type building."

Monts said he is sure his team can address all of the community's concerns. "We are confident that it will be one of the highest quality buildings in the city," he said.

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