Development groups praise new Mount Vernon height limits

230-foot buildings possible

preservationists angered

June 08, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

Earlier this spring city planners were geared for grief as they prepared to unveil their renewal plan for historic Mount Vernon.

The height limits they had in mind for the neighborhood were much too low for development interests and much too high for community leaders and preservationists.

But now that the plan has been released, development interests aren't complaining any longer. The city revised it to allow new construction up to 230 feet - higher than the 180 feet Baltimore Planning Director Otis Rolley III talked about in April.

The Planning Commission is slated to consider the proposal this month, and after that, the City Council will make the final decision.

"This is a trade-off with the development community," Deputy Planning Director D. Christopher Ryer said yesterday. "They were very opposed to the height limits we proposed."

Community leaders, who banded with preservationists and some Charles Street business owners in a campaign to "fight the height," feel frustrated and betrayed.

"We're very disappointed," said Paul Warren, a Mount Vernon homeowner leading the charge against height increases. "The city does not recognize the historic and economic value of Mount Vernon."

The plan to revive Mount Vernon has long been in the works - and its essence has always been getting more people on the neighborhood's streets by encouraging denser development.

Though the renewal plan also suggests extensive guidelines for redevelopment and land use, height is the only contentious issue - and it has overwhelmed the debate.

While most renewal plans are wrapped up in a matter of months, Mount Vernon's has stalled for years because everyone with a stake in the plan had firm ideas about how tall buildings should be and refused to compromise.

Simply put, the Charles Street Development Corp., a group whose goal is revitalizing business along Charles Street, has insisted developers need at least 200-foot-tall buildings to make money. Preservationists argue that buildings higher than 100 feet will destroy Mount Vernon's historic character.

Though the city had initially taken a position between the two sides, advocating 150-foot height limits with a possibility for developers who meet certain conditions to earn 30-foot "bonuses," the newest version of the plan accedes to development wishes.

On top of the 180-foot limit, projects that "add to the character and historic fabric of Mount Vernon through significant architecture and urban design" would be eligible for a 50-foot variance.

The plan would prohibit buildings taller than 70 feet near the neighborhood's treasured Washington Monument. The height limits gradually increase away from the landmark.

Rebecca Gagalis, executive director of the Charles Street Development Corp., said yesterday she was pleased with the new plan's height bump and its allowance for more on-site parking; developers balked at the old plan's attempt to restrict parking to one space per unit unless it's underground. The new plan would allow for 1.5 spaces per unit.

"Clearly the new draft has moved significantly in the right direction for us," Gagalis said.

Gregory Reed, chairman of Charles Street's development committee, said his group still plans to "push hard" for the ability to build to 200 feet without having to jump through hoops for bonuses. Still, he's pleased that Rolley apparently heard their message.

Rolley could not be reached for comment, but Ryer said that the debate should be focused on architectural quality, not height.

"We don't agree that a new building will inherently be worse than an existing building," he said.

Warren said he was blindsided by the new plan. Heights of 180 feet were threatening enough. But 230-foot-tall buildings, he said, will look like "pencils sticking up in the air, casting a shadow over a rowhouse-scale community.

"We thought we were fighting 180 feet," he said. "Obviously there were political pressures."

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