Rochambeau decision upheld

A stay of demolition to be sought today by lawyer for opponents

September 06, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,sun reporter

City officials upheld yesterday their decision to allow the Archdiocese of Baltimore to raze the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building for a prayer garden.

The city housing officer's ruling on the demolition permit rejected the contention of a small group of Mount Vernon residents that Mayor Martin O'Malley and Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano had inappropriately factored religion into their decision.

Amy Wilkinson, a hearing officer for the city's housing department, decided that Graziano was justified in considering federal religious land-use protections as he weighed the benefits of allowing the church to tear down the Rochambeau, which preservationists argue is architecturally significant and integral to the Charles Street streetscape.

"The neighbors argue that the Commissioner was required by law to process the permit `without reference to' the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act," Wilkinson wrote in a 30-page opinion. "The Commissioner may ... consider the impact of federal law on the legality of a decision to deny the permit."

The archdiocese, eager to proceed with plans for its prayer garden, is grateful that its demolition papers were affirmed, Cardinal William H. Keeler said yesterday in a statement.

"We look forward to enhancing the church's presence on Charles Street and are excited to [complement] the outreach of My Sister's Place and Our Daily Bread with a place for Catholic education and prayer," Keeler said.

George W. Leibmann, the attorney representing the neighbors fighting the demolition, said he will file papers today to appeal the city's decision in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The Renaissance Revival Rochambeau has occupied the corner of Charles and Franklin streets since 1905. Now vacant, it sits next to the archdiocese's famed Basilica of the Assumption, which is slated to reopen in November after a $32 million renovation to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

The archdiocese wants to build a prayer garden where the Rochambeau stands to better show off the basilica. Eventually, church officials have said, they hope to use the site for a basilica visitors' center.

Keeler said the archdiocese plans to move quickly to build the prayer garden, which he said will include flowering trees, perennial flowers and shrubs and statuary.

"It is our hope that this prayer garden will provide people of all faiths with knowledge about the church's long history in Baltimore and with a space for quiet prayer and reflection," Keeler said. "That it is located in the shadows of the architectural symbol of religious freedom should not be lost on any of us."

The archdiocese was preparing to demolish the Rochambeau last month but agreed to hold off until 48 hours after the hearing opinion. That would mean the building is safe until Thursday afternoon.

Leibmann said he plans to ask the courts today for a stay of demolition.

Members of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association who joined a small group of residents and business owners to fight the demolition believe there is hope for the Rochambeau.

"It is time to move beyond legal technicalities and for the mayor and the cardinal to sit down and figure out how to do the right thing for Baltimore," said Paul Warren, vice president of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association. "So far, the mayor seems to have lost his voice as to the inappropriateness of this demolition plan and the loss of a key opportunity to foster repopulation and retail development of the Charles Street corridor."

At the lengthy appeal hearing a month ago, Graziano and City Planning Director Otis Rolley III testified that razing the Rochambeau goes against Baltimore's urban-renewal tactics of preservation and bolstering residential density along Charles Street.

Graziano stated bluntly that he would have denied a demolition permit to anyone but the church. He also said that he and O'Malley had considered giving the archdiocese a $900,000 subsidy to make it economically feasible for the church to spare the Rochambeau and convert it to condominiums.

Wilkinson said that despite all this Graziano did not err in issuing the demolition permit.

"After considering legal advice that the Church would prevail if it challenged denial of the demolition permit," she wrote, "[Graziano] exercised his discretion not to initiate the process of pursuing City funds to acquire or condemn the Rochambeau."

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