Save Baltimore's other Rochambeaus

August 07, 2006|By JULIAN LAPIDES AND JOHNS HOPKINS

Baltimore is close to losing another important historic building. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is preparing to raze the 1905 Rochambeau apartment building at Charles and Franklin streets to clear the way for a prayer garden. Like many other historic places in Baltimore, the Rochambeau is not designated a city landmark or protected, even though it is part of a national historic district.

For all of us who care about preserving Baltimore's history, the lesson from the Rochambeau is clear: We need better protections for our historic buildings.

The proposed demolition of the Rochambeau would rob Baltimore of a signature corner building in the Cathedral Hill National Register Historic District. It would also squander a golden development opportunity.

At a time when historic buildings throughout the city are rapidly being converted into apartments and condominiums and the city is promoting downtown living, the Rochambeau offers prime residential space in a strategic location between downtown and the Mount Vernon Cultural District. Or, the building could be renovated and used as a hotel or visitors center for pilgrims coming to the Basilica of the Assumption, or for a combination of uses. A renovated Rochambeau would help businesses along Charles Street and contribute greatly to the area's revitalization effort.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (whose district includes the Rochambeau), and the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, have said they would like to keep the building but do not have the tools to do so. Now is the time to get those tools.

For guidance, we can look to a report issued by a task force chaired by Council President Sheila Dixon that studied Baltimore's historic preservation in 2004. The report outlines steps to better protect and revitalize the city's historic buildings and neighborhoods. Among the most imperative recommendations are the following:

Develop a citywide preservation plan to protect historic resources and guide investment in the city's economic revitalization. The Planning Department's master plan also calls for developing a preservation plan. We Baltimoreans boast of having more than 70 historic districts and 50,000 historic buildings. We now desperately need a plan for how to preserve and reuse them.

Develop new incentives for neighborhoods that are designated local historic districts. The city's historic rehabilitation property tax credit expires next year. This successful program has leveraged millions of dollars of investment in more than 1,000 buildings. It should be reauthorized and expanded so that building owners in local historic districts have even greater resources to maintain and restore their parts of Baltimore's historic fabric.

Strengthen the historical commission's ability to protect historic buildings. CHAP lacks the tools to do its job. Even the commission's ability to nominate city landmarks is in question. A request by Baltimore Heritage to designate the Rochambeau a landmark was rejected on technical grounds on the advice of the city solicitor's office, because the property owner failed to post notice about a CHAP hearing. We believe that CHAP does and should have the ability to nominate landmark buildings. If Baltimore is serious about preservation, this authority needs to be clarified and put to use.

Develop strategies for preserving city-owned historic structures. Baltimore is blessed and cursed with having so many buildings under city ownership. The city has made serious commitments: a new roof on Clifton Mansion, restoration of Cylburn Mansion and rehabilitation of the historic conservatory in Druid Hill Park, to name a few. Hundreds of other buildings and sites need attention, but there exists no strategy on how to tackle them or even identify them. We cannot begin to address the situation effectively without a strategy.

We might yet save the Rochambeau. A group of dedicated property owners has challenged the demolition plans. They are doing the right thing, and we strongly support their effort.

But having the proper tools in place would have prevented the Rochambeau from facing the prospect of demolition. That it does confront this fate shows clearly that it is time to rethink the programs and policies for Baltimore's historic buildings and neighborhoods. The tools are available. We must now make certain that they are put in place.

Julian Lapides is president of Baltimore Heritage, and Johns Hopkins is the group's executive director. E-mail Mr. Lapides at jlethics@msn.com or Mr. Hopkins at hopkins@baltimoreheritage.org.

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