Razing of Rochambeau delayed for 2nd time

Critics look to appeals court after demolition stay denied

September 09, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,[Sun reporter]

The streets were set to close. Demolition crews were to arrive within hours. The Archdiocese of Baltimore hoped that by this morning, a wrecking ball would be aimed squarely at the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartments.

But after a day of legal wrangling, the fate of the Rochambeau was anything but certain late yesterday.

First, at an emergency hearing, Baltimore Circuit Judge Althea Handy refused to order a stop to the demolition at the request of Mount Vernon area opponents. Then after the opponents' attorneys rushed to Annapolis to get a second opinion from the Court of Special Appeals, Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. put the demolition on indefinite hold.

"It's been a legal roller-coaster," archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said, even as the church's attorney's worked into the evening to change Murphy's mind. "I'm sure [the opponents] understand we're not just going to sit and wait.

Attorneys for the demolition opponents, however, assumed Murphy's order meant the Rochambeau would be safe until at least next week, when the appeals court might consider the matter.

Attorney John Murphy was concerned to hear that the archdiocese thought the legal action was still in play.

"I thought the court was waiting to resolve this in a reasonable way," said Murphy, who is no relation to the appeals court judge. "I don't consider making a decision over the weekend reasonable consideration."

The archdiocese wants to tear down the Renaissance Revival building at Charles and Franklin streets and replace it with a prayer garden. Church leaders want the building gone before their famed Basilica of the Assumption reopens in November.

Archdiocese officials say the demolition, which will take weeks, must start immediately in order to finish before the basilica events begin.

But a small group of Mount Vernon-area property owners contend that city officials inappropriately factored religion into their decision to grant the church a demolition permit. They say Mayor Martin O'Malley and Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano were more concerned with the possibility of a religious freedom lawsuit from the church than with upholding city urban renewal laws.

The challengers appealed to Baltimore Circuit Court this week for reconsideration of the permit and a stay of demolition, but yesterday Handy refused to issue a stay. She said the appellants had little chance of getting a court to overturn the permit.

"I'm not convinced there is a likelihood of success on the merits [of your case]," she told the small cluster of preservationists who gathered in court for the hearing.

Handy dismissed as irrelevant attorney George W. Liebmann's argument that city officials granted the church an inappropriate exception.

"It's using a statute intended to prevent discrimination against churches as a means of giving them a preference," Liebmann argued. The archdiocese "has come here to say we're entitled to something no one else is entitled to. And we'll use this [statute] not as a shield but as a sword."

David Kinkopf, the archdiocese's attorney, told the court that delaying the demolition beyond this weekend would cost the church as much as $80,000. He said the church had contractors, cranes and other equipment reserved.

"The plaintiff's goal here is to unfairly and unjustly delay, and their method is confusion," Kinkopf said. "What they want is effectively years of delays."

On Thursday morning, well before Handy was scheduled to hear the opponents' appeal, Baltimore's transportation department issued a release to the news media announcing that the streets around the Rochambeau would close this weekend for the building's demolition.

This is the second time in a matter of a month that opponents scrambled to ward off demolition.

In early August, even as the opponents were trying to arrange a city hearing for the housing department to reconsider the demolition permit, the church prepared to raze the Rochambeau.

Church officials agreed to hold off until 48 hours after housing department hearing officer ruled. Earlier this week the hearing officer affirmed the demolition permit. The archdiocese's agreement to spare the building expired at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Late yesterday Caine, confident that the appeals court would ultimately support the archdiocese, said he thought there was a "50-50" chance that Murphy would issue a new ruling this weekend that would allow the church to begin demolition as soon as tomorrow.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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