City plan to raise height limits raises hackles in Mount Vernon

Residents, builders decry effort for opposite reasons

April 24, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

More than 100 years ago, in the heart of Mount Vernon, a grand hotel was rising and rising - and, to the horror of some of the area's wealthy homeowners, still rising.

When the Stafford Hotel finally topped off at 11 stories to become the swank enclave's tallest building, as soon as the smelling salts wore off, Baltimore's then-aristocracy called for height limits.

A century later, little apparently has changed. Mount Vernon homeowners are still biting their nails at the prospect of boundary-busting structures, and developers are still angling to build them - but at heights that would leave the now-staid Stafford looking dainty.

A long-brewing city plan to revive the historic neighborhood and boost its population by encouraging larger-scale development has resulted in a fully engaged standoff over one issue - height. On the one side are protective Mount Vernon homeowners and preservationists struggling to suppress it. On the other, business interests that are demanding it.

In the middle and directly in the firing line sits the city's planning department. Despite nearly five tense years of negotiating with both sides, officials can't conjure anything close to a compromise.

Later this spring, Planning Director Otis Rolley III says he'll unveil a renewal proposal that increases height limits in parts of the neighborhood to 180 feet - too much for some but not enough for others. Though he expects a contentious, passionate battle, Rolley is determined to get more people onto Mount Vernon's streets and thinks higher-rise apartment or condo buildings is one way to do it.

"We're moving forward," Rolley says matter-of-factly. "Both sides have said they won't."

Rolley, who half-jokingly calls the Mount Vernon plan "his cross to bear," refers to the neighborhood as a planning "enigma."

Despite its cobblestoned and corniced charms, Mount Vernon has largely been bypassed by the renaissance rush that has swept Baltimore's other historic zones, like Federal Hill and Fells Point.

Although some homeowners who've moved in to rehab grand brownstones couldn't be happier with their hushed streets, Rolley thinks the area could be among the city's most dynamic - but only if more people lived and played there.

"It has the architecture, it has the culture, it has the history. ... It has all the assets it would need to be a hot area, but to be honest, I'm not sure what will be the catalyst," he says. "I'm hoping this plan will be the spark."

Though the plan might or might not be a spark, it's definitely a powder keg, surrounded by volatile emotions.

Rolley's proposal would prohibit buildings higher than 70 feet near Mount Vernon's treasured Washington Monument, then gradually increase height limits away from the monument up to a maximum of 150 feet. Developers who meet certain criteria would then be eligible for 20- or 30-foot bonuses, making it possible for buildings to stand as tall as 180 feet.

The numbers leave community activists and development interests exasperated.

Residents with the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association insist that buildings taller than 100 feet would threaten their neighborhood's historic patina. Meanwhile, leaders of the Charles Street Development Corp., a group charged with enlivening business on Mount Vernon's main corridor, say building anything shorter than 200 feet is pointless.

With their heels firmly dug in, neither side is budging, each side viewing the other as either obstructionists to progress or conscienceless profiteers.

"We have a vested interest in maintaining the character that brought us here in the first place," says Paul Warren, the owner of a painstakingly rehabbed Mount Vernon home and leader of the anti-height fight. "We really feel like this community's happening. ... This is absolutely not the time to be selling ourselves short, saying, `Oh we better bring in skyscrapers.'"

But Rebecca Gagalis, executive director of the Charles Street Development Corp., says Mount Vernon offers few sites with potential for new construction - and none of them large. For a residential project to be economically feasible and architecturally pleasing, building tall, she says, is the only answer.

"There are very few opportunities to do the kind of projects to give the area life," Gagalis says.

Adds Gregory Reed, one of Gagalis' board members: "If they don't increase the height, it's a stillborn plan."

A number of preservation groups and some small businesses are siding with the homeowners. Key Mount Vernon cultural attractions are advocating more height.

Charles Duff, executive director of Midtown Development Corp., says 10 stories should satisfy any developer - they don't need 20 or more.

"Every historic district in the United States has low height limits," Duff says. "It's not up to us to prove that the whole country is wrong, it's up to them."

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