Building height debate towers over Mount Vernon

Hundreds pack hearing on plan that could ease way for taller structures

July 22, 2005|By Jill Rosen and William Wan | Jill Rosen and William Wan,SUN STAFF

More than 100 people packed a hearing last night on a plan that would dictate how one of Baltimore's most historic neighborhoods will evolve.

Dozens of people lined up to testify before the city Planning Commission on the renewal plan for Mount Vernon in a debate that has largely come down to how high future buildings will push the neighborhood's skyline.

The hearing, which began at 7 p.m., ran for hours.

The goal behind the city's plan is to get more people on Mount Vernon's streets by encouraging denser development. Despite the neighborhood's grand architecture, cultural attractions and proximity to downtown, redevelopment dollars have largely left it alone as developers rush to invest in Federal Hill, Canton and Fells Point.

Mount Vernon's vacant lots and relatively stagnant retail life frustrate planners, residents and developers alike. By updating the neighborhood's outdated development guidelines, planners hope to set Mount Vernon in a new direction, giving it the vitality other areas of Baltimore are beginning to experience.

But how far to let developers go, specifically, how high they can build, has all but frozen the plan. Preservationists insist that tall buildings will overwhelm Mount Vernon's streetscape, while developers say anything but tall is not worth their time.

While most renewal plans are wrapped up in months, Mount Vernon's has stalled for five years because no one with a stake in the plan has been willing to compromise.

"You all have a very, very difficult job here." said Maryland Institute College of Art President Fred Lazarus. "Everyone wants density. ... Everyone wants the historic character of this neighborhood to continue. I'm afraid that we have two extremes dominating this but no one in the middle."

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.

Initially, the city took a position between the two sides, advocating 150-foot limits with a possibility for developers who meet certain conditions to earn 30-foot "bonuses." The city then adjusted the plan in favor of builders, allowing for heights up to 230 feet.

Consultants for Charles Street Development Corp. flashed pictures before the commission last night of Philadelphia, first a shot of the city in 1968 with a flat skyline, then in 1987, the city's skyscrapers twinkling against the evening sky.

"I see what you see." George E. Thomas said of Mount Vernon. " I see great architecture, but I see an urban fabric that isn't great."

Paul Warren, a Mount Vernon homeowner leading the "Fight the Height' campaign, countered with his own visual aid - a slide depicting what Charles Street would look like with taller buildings crowding the brownstones and shops.

Saying density will benefit the community is like saying "good will leads to peace on earth." Warren said. "I would encourage those in the discussion tonight not to talk about density in an overglorified manner."

The most recent version of the renewal plan further eases the way for taller buildings and removes power from the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, a government entity recently moved from the city Housing Department to the city Planning Department that has long kept a watchful eye on Mount Vernon development.

Near the Washington Monument, buildings taller than 70 feet would be prohibited. But heading away from the landmark, heights could reach up to 180 feet. Additionally, developers building outside of the monument zone could apply for an additional 50 feet if their project meets a number of standards, including "significant' architecture and accommodations for affordable housing.

To get the 50 feet, a developer would have to win approval from both the Planning Commission and CHAP. However, the plan allows for waivers should "any specific requirements' of the plan be deemed too restrictive.

The Planning Commission would grant any waivers.

CHAP chairwoman Judith Miller told the commission that despite initially favoring the recent move of her board to the Planning Department, she now believes it was done to silence it.

The renewal plan would also create a new board - in addition to CHAP - that developers would have to win approval from before building in Mount Vernon. The nine-member panel would include representatives from business groups and neighborhood organizations and be led by the City Council member from the 11th District - Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.

"This emasculates CHAP." Miller said, adding that the renewal plan, without CHAP's guidance, threatens Mount Vernon's character.

"It will destroy the balance between responsible development and historic preservation."

Another consultant for Charles Street Development Corp., Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group, warned against stifling height limits.

"Please let us not be suburban in our attitudes and our thinking." he said. "Just when developers are getting excited about Baltimore we want to cap our potential - utterly frustrating."

The plan, after a vote by the Planning Commission, goes to the City Council's urban affairs committee. A hearing date has not been set.

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