Fight brews in Mount Vernon

Developer wants to raze 4 buildings found worthy of protection

October 30, 2005|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

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 shops 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 such as 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.

"I don't see the significant value of those structures or how their removal would detract from the historical fabric of Mount Vernon," he says.

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. "If you disagree with them on anything, then you don't get it or you hate Mount Vernon or you're anti-preservation."

A turnabout

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."

Criteria

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.

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