A ho-hum high-rise gets the heave-ho

Preservationists reject bland design for Mount Vernon apartment building


October 06, 2002|By Edward Gunts | By Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

When is the back of a building more important than the front? When the building is a high-rise that will be seen from all directions, and the back forms a front door to the neighborhood where it will be constructed. And that's made the design process difficult for the developer and architects of Maryland Plaza, an 11-story apartment building planned for Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district.

They were hoping to begin construction of the $17 million project this fall, after receiving approval from Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel in August. But Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which also has design review authority, subsequently voted to withhold final approval, sending the architects back to the drawing board.

The decision was clearly a setback for the developer, who wants to add 153 apartments to the area without any city subsidy. But it was a commendable stance for the commission, charged with ensuring that new buildings in city historic districts are compatible with their surroundings.

At a time when Mount Vernon is finally coming out of its doldrums and attracting new investment, there's no reason to settle for anything but the best architecture.

Maryland Plaza is the proposed replacement for the vacant and fire-damaged Albert Gunther & Co. hardware store, a series of 1860s-era townhouses at the northeast corner of West Biddle Street and Maryland Avenue. Surrounding blocks are lined with richly detailed three- and four-story townhouses built more than a century ago.

The land is owned by University Properties, a University of Baltimore affiliate. The owner is working with developer Conrad Monts of the Washington Development Group and his architect, D.R. Brasher of Columbia.

Maryland Plaza would be Mount Vernon's first new high-rise in more than a decade. Many blocks of the neighborhood have tall buildings interspersed with townhouses. Some are gems, including the Belvedere, Stafford and Latrobe. Others are less appealing, lacking the detail and richness of their low-rise neighbors and causing them to stand out rather than fit in.

For Maryland Plaza, architect Ron Brasher and his colleagues proposed a tall, narrow building with a masonry skin, individual windows, a precast stone cornice and a "green roof" made of living materials. The building would occupy most of the site, and its entrance would be near Biddle and Maryland.

While the architects clearly tried to make the building compatible with its setting, the design presented to the preservation commission still can't be described as a comfortable fit for the area. In terms of materials, details and sheer visual interest, it just doesn't measure up. It's flat, boxy and blandly monolithic.

That gap in quality with neighboring structures was noted by several Mount Vernon residents who testified against the design during a three-hour hearing last month.

"This looks like a glorified public housing project," said Ann Razgunas, a resident of the nearby Symphony Hall condominiums. "I don't think anyone in this room is going to say that this building fits in," added Biddle Street resident Mark Panos. "A building that looks like Murphy Homes and the other buildings that just got imploded is not the way to go."

Back versus front

The most problematic side is the north wall, technically the rear of the building. But in many respects it would be the most visible side, seen by thousands of people driving downtown along Maryland Avenue every day.

The problem with the design is that this prominent, 11-story north side is mostly a blank wall. The middle area has windows set back in a courtyard, but the perimeter is windowless except for one vertical strip down the west side.

The developers say the north wall has few windows because the building is on the property line. They fear the owner of the neighboring property may someday want to put up an adjacent building, which could require the filling in of any windows on the party wall.

Limiting the number of windows might make sense if the north wall were less conspicuous. But Maryland Plaza will be a gateway to Mount Vernon and the central business district. A huge blank wall would make the worst possible impression.

The answer is for Monts, the developer, to confer with the neighboring property owner to see if an agreement can be reached on what might be built to the north, before construction begins on Maryland Plaza.

The owner is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. It operates a two-story garage on the property. According to treasurer Ernest Rafailides, the church has no immediate plans to redevelop the parcel but doesn't want to limit its options. He said church representatives would be happy to meet with Monts to seek a mutually beneficial solution.

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