Building height limit debated

City Council panel defers decision on how tall structures can be in historic Mount Vernon

Baltimore & Region

September 23, 2005|By John Fritze | John Fritze,sun reporter

Residents and developers sounded off yesterday about how high buildings should be allowed to climb above the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood, but a Baltimore City Council committee hearing the debate decided to delay a decision until next month at the earliest.

Only one member of the Urban Affairs Committee, Chairwoman Paula Johnson Branch, stayed to listen to all the arguments that have been raging for years over how high developers should be allowed to build in the city's oldest historic district.

The City Council is considering a renewal plan for the neighborhood that would set redevelopment and land-use guidelines. The only contentious issue has been a cap on building height. Developers want it set at 200 feet, while a neighborhood group prefers a 100-foot limit.

Branch, whose hearing lasted more than three hours, said the committee would not vote on the renewal plan until both sides have another chance to find a compromise at a mediation session scheduled for Oct. 3.

"When I listen to the other side, they haven't provided me with any facts or statistics to convince me that 200 feet is in Mount Vernon's best interest," said Steve Johnson, a Charles Street resident who has lived in the neighborhood since 1972.

More than 100 people turned out at City Hall for the hearing and, based on applause, about three-quarters of the room supported the preservationists. The turnout underscored the passion on both sides of an issue that could have a significant impact on the area's future.

"It's a neighborhood that's really poised on the edge of taking off and zooming," said Jonathan Fine, treasurer of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association.

The renewal plan is intended to draw more people to the streets of Mount Vernon by luring more retail development into a neighborhood characterized by stately residential buildings. Some residents are concerned about maintaining the area's historic character and views along Charles Street.

"Fight the Height" signs appear in storefronts and apartment windows, and the issue has sharply divided preservationists from developers, who say new buildings must be at least 200 feet tall to make money.

Both sides said they agree on almost everything else in the plan and that the fight essentially hangs on a handful of developable surface parking lots.

"I believe that, in reality, less than 200 feet high means no development on these surface lots," said Henry G. Hagan, chairman of the Charles Street Development Corp.

Besides new retail, development officials said an infusion of new housing would help bring around a neighborhood that residents say is flourishing but developers see as needing a boost.

"What Charles Street needs more than anything else are people," said Charles Smith, a corporation board member.

Several council members left early, and neighbors and developers both acknowledged that similar arguments have been voiced at four other hearings.john.fritze@baltsun.com

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