An amendment quietly added and approved by the City Council at the request of Mercy Medical Center strips all protections from a row of downtown historic houses that the hospital has long wanted to demolish.
Baltimore's preservation board was not aware that City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. changed the bill, and the public was not given an opportunity to comment before the council passed the measure and Mayor Martin O'Malley signed it into law this month.
Irate, preservationists are calling the move an end run against open government and demanding that the city restore the protected status of the buildings, which are owned by the hospital and are some of the oldest left downtown.
"It's the most despicable and underhanded procedure I've ever seen - especially by a council that knew or should have known of our interest," said Julian L. Lapides, the president of Baltimore Heritage and a former state lawmaker.
"It was an end run done with total disregard for the community."
Tension has been building for years between the hospital and preservationists over the circa-1820s houses in the 300 block of St. Paul Place as Mercy cemented plans to build a $292 million inpatient tower.
When the hospital announced late last year that the project would require the razing of the houses, preservationists began planning to get them declared city landmarks, a designation that offers an extra layer of protection against demolition.
However, because preservationists knew the houses were listed as "notable" in the central business district's urban renewal plan, they figured that they had time to strategize.
The notable status requires - among other things - a one-year waiting period once a property owner requests a demolition permit.
So no one was concerned this fall when city officials began reviewing a bill to insert a few seemingly innocuous amendments into the renewal plan.
In fact, Kathleen G. Kotarba, executive director of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, says the bill wasn't even on the commission's radar because it had nothing to do with preservation.
"We had no idea [Mitchell's] amendment was coming," she said.
But in October, after the Planning Commission had held a public hearing and given its blessing to the bill, Mitchell added Mercy's amendment during a sparsely attended City Council committee hearing, where it got no discussion.
With the amendment, Mercy would no longer have to wait a year to demolish the houses, nor would it have to prove that the houses, which the hospital uses as offices, are economically infeasible to preserve.
Preservationists heard about the amendment and its implications only after O'Malley signed it Nov. 8.
Mitchell stands by the amendment, saying the hospital's needs trump any historic value in the houses.
He says he followed the council's proper legislative process, and he points out that if interested parties had looked at the bill, they would have seen the change before the council's vote.
"I did what I thought was due diligence," he said.
"When I looked at it and looked at the argument of Mercy, a nonprofit hospital that's vital to the city and putting in a [$292 million] project, that's what I weighed it on."
In the early 1800s, hundreds of tiny rowhouses spread across the slope leading from Charles Street down toward the Jones Falls.
The block of houses on St. Paul Place, which used to be called Courtland Street, is all that remains of them.
"If there were a list of special buildings in Baltimore, these would be in the Top 10," said city planner Jim Hall, who helped draft the 2001 renewal ordinance that Mitchell's amendment changes.
"It's the oldest row of buildings left in our center city," said Johns Hopkins, the executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit historic and architectural preservation group.
"It's the last block left from when Baltimore began," said Hopkins.
Hopkins and Lapides recently drafted a letter to Mitchell, O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon assailing the officials for the lack of public process in the matter and demanding that the new amendment be repealed.
Early this year, Planning Director Otis Rolley III told The Sun that the rowhouses were included in the renewal ordinance "to make sure demolition is not just on a whim."
The ordinance does not prevent demolition but sets up a process for property owners to follow.
For example, when the Archdiocese of Baltimore wanted to tear down the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building near Mount Vernon to build a prayer garden, the church had to wait a year as the city considered its request, because the Rochambeau was similarly protected in a renewal ordinance.
"It's the Rochambeau all over again," Lapides said of the rowhouses, "but multiplied by 10, because these were built earlier and are much more significant."