Mercy's permit expected in days

Quick OK on razing old houses could dash heritage hopes

December 07, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun Reporter

Mercy Medical Center will likely have a permit to demolish a row of historic downtown houses before preservationists get a shot at saving them next week.

City officials said yesterday that Mercy's demolition application is moving quickly, and the hospital could have a permit in hand by the end of the week. If so, that could render irrelevant an effort to give landmark status to the buildings and quash any chance for public debate on the matter.

The move comes weeks after the passage of a bill, quietly amended by City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. at Mercy's request, to strip all historic protections from the buildings, enabling the hospital to begin its $292 million expansion without having to bother with a one-year demolition deliberation process.

Julian L. Lapides, president of Baltimore Heritage and a former state lawmaker, said he and other preservationists will stick with their attempt to protect the buildings - even if the effort becomes moot. The row of 1820s houses in the 300 block of St. Paul Place are among the oldest left downtown.

"We need to stand up and say that even if it's a fait accompli, these are landmark buildings, and the City Council and the mayor signed their death knell," Lapides said. "We're going to do this even if there's black crepe hanging in lieu of the buildings."

Mercy applied for a demolition permit Friday, and as of yesterday afternoon, the application was on its way to approval, said Michael Braverman, the city housing department's deputy commissioner for code enforcement.

"We're moving the permit as quickly as we can," he said.

Even so, before Mercy applied for the permit, Baltimore Heritage asked Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation to consider making the buildings landmarks and a proposal that would stay demolition for six months so that the landmark legislation had time to make its way through the city's approval chain. CHAP will consider both measures Tuesday afternoon.

"Given the significance of the buildings, the commission intends to provide a public process to consider this," said Kathleen Kotarba, CHAP's executive director.

It is unclear, however, what will happen if the city's housing department grants the demolition permit before Tuesday and then CHAP approves the protections.

Mercy officials say they will move quickly to break ground on their new in-patient tower - which they hope to open by spring 2010. In a letter to Kotarba, they said they would "vigorously oppose" any effort by CHAP to stop the demolition because it would "greatly imperil" their project.

"Mercy is proceeding with the appropriate process and hopes to secure a demolition permit as soon as possible," Gary N. Michael, Mercy's senior vice president of marketing, wrote yesterday in an e-mail to The Sun. "Since announcing Mercy's plans in December 2005, the hospital has been working extensively with its consultants and appropriate City and State officials to demonstrate the importance of the Replacement Tower."

Until Mitchell's amendment was signed into law a few weeks ago, the St. Paul Place homes were listed as "notable" in the central business district's urban renewal plan. The "notable" status requires - among other things - a one-year waiting period after a property owner requests a demolition permit.

Mitchell introduced the amendment after the bill had had a public hearing before the Planning Commission. Even the city's preservation board had no idea the amendment was in the works until after the mayor signed the bill last month.

The Mount Royal Improvement Association voted unanimously Tuesday night to protest the city's action. Mitchell, who lives in the Bolton Hill area, is on the association's board. He abstained from the vote.

David Rocah, the association's president, said that the city, with its "indisputably sneaky maneuver" to remove the historic protections, has violated the spirit of the urban renewal law.

"The whole reason for the one-year waiting period was to prevent situations like this, where there's no time for reasoned debate and it becomes a fait accompli," he said, adding that it would be "a real tragedy" if next Tuesday's hearings are invalid as well.

"That's wrong," he said. "That's not the way a city protects its historic architecture. To trash one of our greatest assets just makes no sense."

This fall, the Archdiocese of Baltimore was able to demolish the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartments at the edge of Mount Vernon, despite a late-launched effort to landmark the building.

This time is different, said Johns Hopkins, Baltimore Heritage's executive director, because his organization applied for the landmark status before Mercy applied for a demolition permit.

If those options fail, preservationists could request a city administrative hearing to review the issuance of a demolition permit. That also happened, but to no avail, with the Rochambeau.

The next step would be asking Baltimore Circuit Court for an injunction to stop the demolition.

In the case of the Rochambeau, though the case went all the way to Maryland's highest court, preservationists ultimately lost and the building came down.

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