Just weeks after Baltimore's historic preservation board approved a list of Mount Vernon properties deserving of protection, a developer is asking for approval to demolish four of them, small carriage houses that date to 1895.
Though Mayor Martin O'Malley, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Baltimore's planning director support the demolition and the construction of condominiums, preservationists are poised for a fight as the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation considers the plan Nov. 8.
"To me," says former Baltimore Heritage President John Maclay, "it doesn't send a good message about the city's interest in historic preservation."
But developer Howard Chambers and the city officials who back him say the buildings add nothing to Mount Vernon's character while condominiums could give the neighborhood a much-needed shot of vitality.
"You can't save everything just because it's old," Chambers says. "The big question is, what do these buildings contribute? We think our project is going to contribute significantly."
Instead of the former carriage houses, garages and stables at 1012 to 1020 Morton St. - two of which are occupied by architecture firms and a hair salon - Chambers wants to build a 50- to 60-unit condominium building with a parking garage and retail on the first floor.
The units would start at about $360,000, Chambers said.
The development/preservation standoff is the latest battle in the city's attempts to blend old and new in one of Baltimore's most historic neighborhoods.
Though most everyone agrees that Mount Vernon has yet to experience the revitalization spreading across such historic communities as Canton, Federal Hill and Fells Point, planners, developers, preservationists and community activists have wrestled for years over an urban renewal plan to help bring it about.
Planners say the key is getting more people living there. But how to fit high-density apartment and condominium buildings into the historic streetscape without overwhelming landmarks like the Belvedere Hotel and the Washington Monument is unresolved.
Though the controversy up to now has largely centered on building height, Chambers' proposal has added fire to the fractious debate. His condo plan would rise 180 feet, 30 feet higher than the limit the planning commission recommends for that area of Mount Vernon.
"The preservationists' goals and my goals are the same - we want to save Mount Vernon," Chambers says. "It's just that our ways of going about it are different."
At its meeting this month, CHAP approved a list of structures - including the Morton Street buildings - that contribute to Mount Vernon's historic character. A key goal behind making the list, city planners said, was to make it less attractive for developers to demolish historic properties. If a listed building came down - by demolition, neglect or natural disaster - a developer could build only as high as the old structure.
O'Malley, Mitchell and Planning Director Otis Rolley III have written letters asking to have the Morton Street buildings taken off the list.
"Remove [Chambers'] properties from the proposed contributing structure list and push him toward a design that add[s] to this historically rich neighborhood," O'Malley urged CHAP.
Rolley said the buildings don't bolster the neighborhood's historic ambience.
Rolley was not aware last week that CHAP had approved the contributing structures list at its Oct. 19 meeting. Assuming the list had not "become gospel," he said its contents were up for discussion.
Hearing about the vote, Rolley chastised CHAP for pushing it through and vented frustration at the obstinate attitude of some Mount Vernon residents toward his office's development ideas.
"If you even want to have a thoughtful debate, you're cast as Satan," Rolley says.
In 2002, while Chambers was intent on renovating his properties rather than razing them, he applied to the Maryland Historic Trust for tax credits for one of them - 1014 Morton. Though he never followed through on the application, the trust approved the first phase of it, deeming the carriage house a "certified heritage structure."
"The 1000 block of Morton Street is an excellently preserved streetscape," Chambers' application stated. "It demonstrates the care and attention to detail that builders placed in structures that were little more than glorified barns. ... These structures are as important to the fabric of [Mount Vernon] as the grand homes and churches."
CHAP will begin reviewing Chambers' demolition request Nov. 8. The first step, says Kathleen Kotarba, the commission's executive director, is to figure out whether the buildings contribute to the historic district.
To contribute, she said, buildings must meet a number of criteria such as being in their original setting, and representing a style of architecture that's part of the city's development, heritage or culture.
"The buildings would certainly appear to meet the criteria," she says.
If the buildings pass that first test, then it's up to Chambers to show CHAP why the buildings aren't economically feasible to keep. If Chambers is successful at that second step, the commission would then look at his plans for the site.
Chambers says that despite spending $780,000 to renovate the properties, he has not been able to lease two of them.
Steve Ziger thinks it should be easy for Chambers to find tenants - he snapped up another carriage house on the block for his architecture firm's offices. He finds the city's eagerness to demolish certified historic property "shortsighted" and "inexcusable."
"In a neighborhood such as ours with so many vacant sites, why would we tear down historic fabric in order to create development opportunity?" Ziger says. "I strongly support economic development and higher density, but with all the vacant sites here, it doesn't make any sense."