A soft sell

August 18, 2006

Preservationists who are trying to save the 1905 Rochambeau apartment building from the wrecking ball have done the public a service. Their challenge to the demolition permit granted to the building's owner, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, has revealed how little capital City Hall expended to save the building. And it wasn't because the city didn't think the Renaissance Revival structure was worth it.

Quite the opposite: City Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano and Planning Director Otis Roley III testified at a hearing that they thought the building should be saved for its historic value and because its redevelopment would fit in with the Mount Vernon renewal plan. They are the city's top professionals in this area; their expertise should count for something, right? But Mayor Martin O'Malley followed the lead of the city solicitor, who advised that a federal religious protection law gave the archdiocese the right to do with the building what it wants.

Mr. O'Malley has said he was prepared to offer the church public funds - as much as $900,000, by one account - to offset the cost of developing the vacant apartment building into condominiums. But the city never made a proposal to church leaders, hearing testimony showed.

The archdiocese wants to raze the Rochambeau (two economic analyses concluded its renovation would be costly) and build a prayer garden alongside the restored Basilica of the Assumption. But if Mr. O'Malley is committed to preserving the city's architectural heritage, the city should have made its best offer to the church rather than capitulate to the archdiocese's intransigence and implied threat to sue the city.

It's doubtful that the Rochambeau will be saved, but the city's failure to have even tried shows a lack of vision and will.

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