Concern over condos

Federal Hill residents nervous about height, style

October 23, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Though hundreds of Federal Hill residents are alarmed about a plan to build modern-looking condominiums in the midst of the neighborhood's historic main street, there might not be much they can do about it.

More than 200 people have signed a petition against the plan, which involves razing two storefront rowhouses on Charles Street, not far from the Cross Street Market, and building a luxury condo building. At five stories, the building would be about twice as tall as the rest of the block.

"My concern is, this building is going to go up and people are going to say, `How in the heck could this have happened?' " said Julie Tice, past president of the South Baltimore Improvement Committee.

"What would this neighborhood look like if everything was maximized? It's not downtown, and it's not Inner Harbor East. It's a neighborhood."

The developers of the Views at Federal Hill, however, say their building won't threaten the neighborhood's character.

"We feel we're creating a very good building in the city, a cornerstone for what Federal Hill could be," said Chris Rachuba, who is working on the project with two other first-time city developers, Adam Smolen and Steven Alms.

"It's development," Rachuba added. "If you build a single house in the middle of nowhere you get opposition."

The Views, at 1201 S. Charles St., are slated to include 12 exclusive condominiums of up to 1,700 square feet apiece. There will be a garage on the ground floor along with some retail space and roof decks atop the fifth floor.

The design is a modern amalgamation of brick, metal and glass.

The project's critics fear its scale and aesthetic will diminish the charm of Charles Street, where trendy restaurants, bars and boutiques have moved into century-old, three-story storefronts.

Similar concerns have also emerged in several of Baltimore's other older neighborhoods like Fells Point and Mount Vernon, where residents and preservationists worry that developers seeking to get the most out of their investment by building bigger are doing so at the expense of the historic fabric.

But those charged with luring investment to the city say projects like the Views are just what Baltimore needs.

Bonnie Crockett, executive director of Federal Hill's Main Street program, which has given the Views its seal of approval, said preserving the neighborhood's historic feel is important, but that there's more to commercial revitalization.

"You have to keep all factors into consideration, including economic development in the neighborhood," she said.

The South Baltimore residents behind the petition are dismayed that Crockett's group, a subsidiary of the Baltimore Development Corp. with a business bent, is the only community organization that had a chance to review the Views plans.

Unlike some of the city's other historic neighborhoods like Mount Vernon or Bolton Hill, this area is not a district subject to the city's preservation board. And because the project's scope falls within zoning parameters, it doesn't need approval from either the Planning Commission or the City Council.

Yet as a courtesy, developers typically present their plans to nearby neighborhood groups - a number of them if need be. The city encourages the community involvement.

"The developer should have been responsive to that, or at least sensitive," said Paul Quinn, president of the nearby Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "My take on it is that they wanted to get as much out of the lot as they could without regard for the neighborhood."

Added Tice: "We, as residents, should have been able to say, `Your right to do this thing is infringing on my right to maintain a cohesive pedestrian streetscape.'"

Rachuba insists the development team has done what it needs to do, saying, "We absolutely feel we've covered our bases."

Jack Chaffin, chairman of the Main Street organization's design committee that approved the project, said the developers were willing to rework the plan a bit after his group found "it looked just huge - kind of like a big block."

Chaffin, who's also an architect, thinks the condos will benefit Federal Hill's business district, saying, "The buildings being replaced are eyesores in the community. What's replacing them is 100 times better."

The buildings to be demolished are vacant and abut an empty lot.

Baltimore's architectural review board did consider the design at a meeting this month, but it can only make recommendations, which the developer is free to disregard.

The Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel had little positive to say about the design but didn't fault its scale.

Architects on the panel recommended the developers take the plan back to the drawing board to work on ways it could fit better on the block.

"Maybe give some of that a bit more thought so you could be the good neighbor you're trying to be," panelist Mark Cameron told the developers.

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