Apartment demolition set to start Saturday

Court refuses to hear an appeal aimed at saving Rochambeau

September 13, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,sun reporter

Maryland's highest court refused yesterday to hear a sharply worded appeal aimed at stopping the Archdiocese of Baltimore from demolishing the Rochambeau, a 100-year-old Mount Vernon-area apartment building.

The Court of Appeals order effectively ends any chance preservationists had of saving the building, which they insist is not only architecturally notable but a key piece of the Charles Street urban corridor.

It also frees the archdiocese to begin tearing down the building for its prayer garden. Frustrated from spending the past month in a holding pattern as demolition opponents appealed to four separate venues - in addition to waiting a year for a city razing permit - church officials say wrecking crews will begin "in earnest" Saturday morning.

"After more than 15 months of careful review of our demolition application by various city and court officials," said archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine, "we are pleased that we will soon be able to vastly improve this corner of historic Charles Street."

The Rochambeau, named for a French commander who camped on the site during the Revolutionary War, has stood since 1905 at Charles and Franklin streets - next to the Roman Catholic Church's prized Basilica of the Assumption.

The archdiocese bought the Rochambeau in 2002. Despite church officials' initial insistence that they had no plans to raze it, the archdiocese applied last year for a demolition permit, setting off a yearlong struggle for preservationists seeking to save the now-vacant building.

Those who fought for the building took yesterday's news of their loss with bitter disappointment. The preservationists have argued that city officials erred in issuing the demolition permit when they allowed federal religious freedom rules to trump Baltimore urban renewal goals.

"It is disgusting that the archdiocese will succeed, with a Catholic mayor's acquiescence, in demolishing a key Baltimore historic asset," Mount Vernon Belvedere Association Vice President Paul Warren said.

"[Our attorney] George Liebmann was dead on when he stated that the archdiocese is using the church-state laws not as the shield they were intended to be, but as a sword to gain privileges none of the rest of society has been granted. Shame on you, Cardinal Keeler, for stooping to these tactics, and shame on you, Mr. Mayor, for being unwilling to stand up and fight for this city."

Early yesterday, Liebmann filed an emergency motion with the Court of Appeals, asking for a stay of demolition and for the court to reconsider the demolition permit.

Expressing his frustration that he had yet to persuade a court to hear his case, Liebmann wrote: "The Courts of Maryland have allowed themselves to be stampeded by a powerful institution. It is time for the stampede to be stopped."

Counter motion

The archdiocese filed a counter motion, arguing just as bluntly that the opponents have no case, calling their motion "desperate and unjustified."

"Quite simply, Appellants have not met their burden in either the Circuit Court nor before this Court," attorney David Kinkopf wrote. "They have no real probability of success."

It took the Court of Appeals only a few hours yesterday to deny the demolition opponents' motion.

At a hearing in August during which the opponents first challenged the demolition permit, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano and Planning Director Otis Rolley III testified that tearing down the Rochambeau defeated their urban renewal goals. Graziano added that he would never have granted the permit to anyone but the church.

"The staffs of the housing and planning departments, and their commissioners, must feel very let down by the mayor and judiciary," Liebmann said.

Archdiocese officials said they will move a wrecking ball into the area early Saturday and start razing the building about 7 a.m. Tearing the building down is scheduled to take six weekends and should be done in time for the basilica's 200th anniversary festivities in early November.

Keeler said last week that the garden will include flowering trees, perennial flowers and shrubs and statuary. Church officials have also said that eventually they would like to build a basilica visitors center on the site.

"The restored basilica and the complementing amenities, including the prayer garden, will benefit the entire community," Caine said.

CHAP meeting

It was unclear late yesterday whether Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation still planned to meet at 2 p.m. tomorrow to consider making the Rochambeau a city landmark.

CHAP tried this summer to grant the building the protected landmark status but was stymied when the archdiocese refused to post notice for the required hearing on the building.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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