Character counts

June 05, 2005

IF DONALD Trump wanted to build a tower of power in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood, he could do it. No law would bar the Donald from erecting a rival to his Manhattan properties, because there is no height restriction in the midtown neighborhood except in its historic square.

But no one really thinks the sky should be the limit in greater Mount Vernon. That wouldn't spur development, and it wouldn't encourage the neighborhood feel of the place. The community agrees that height limits are appropriate for the area, but it is divided over how high and where.

At issue now is a revised urban renewal plan offered by city Planning Director Otis Rolley III that proposes graduated height limits north along the Charles Street corridor in the historic district. It's a reasonable plan in that it respects the integrity of Mount Vernon Square (and its century-old, state-mandated height limit of 70 feet) and caps the tallest building at 180 feet, just shy of the landmark Belvedere Hotel's height.

But Mr. Rolley's plan is under attack from both sides in this debate. Neighborhood preservationists want to restrict buildings to 100 feet (about 10 stories) and retain the Belvedere's dominance on the Mount Vernon skyline. The Charles Street Development Corp., representing businesses and institutions, envisions a 200-foot limit, a height they say is economically essential to bring in the retail-residential development that would enliven moribund stretches of Charles Street. Buzz - and density - is what they're after.

We are sympathetic to their economic concerns, but the argument doesn't sway us. There exist now successful residential-commercial properties along Charles Street that don't overwhelm their neighbors or the streetscape. Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse is developing a mixed-use project in the 1200 block of N. Charles St. that will rise only five stories. In Washington, a 12-story height limit hasn't been an impediment to successful development, and it has preserved the U.S. Capitol's dominance across the cityscape.

What should take precedence in this debate is retaining the character and architectural integrity of Mount Vernon. They are not only worth preserving, they should be enhanced. A taller building that complements the stately 19th-century townhouses in the area shouldn't be outlawed, but profit shouldn't be the motive driving how high the city sets the bar.

Mr. Rolley's intention to allow taller buildings closer to Mount Royal Avenue recognizes the value of retaining the core character of the neighborhood. Even taller buildings on the edge of Mount Vernon, such as the vicinities of the University of Baltimore and Symphony Hall, would be suitable. The city proposal also accounts for parking needs and eliminates the incentive to let a property fall into such disrepair that demolition is the ready remedy.

Tall isn't necessarily bad, if the architecture is appropriate to the setting. Mount Vernon's historic designation should protect it somewhat from tall and ugly because the city's Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation must approve designs and approved projects will reflect its tastes and expertise. The difference between 100 feet and 180 feet is about eight stories; a compromise would increase a developer's potential but maintain the Belvedere as the pre-eminent marker in the neighborhood. Fourteen stories sounds tall enough to us.

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