Rowhouse end run

December 08, 2006

Preservationists are right to be upset about the fate of a row of 1820s-era houses that Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center wants to demolish to make way for a hospital tower. They were essentially deprived of an opportunity to challenge the removal of demolition protections for this unique piece of the city's architectural heritage, and deserve a chance to work with Mercy on alternatives to tearing down the houses.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell, who represents the district, and his council colleagues did next to nothing to inform preservationists and other interested parties of Mercy's bid to strip protections from the rowhouses and to ensure a robust public discussion on the matter.

It deserved that much, at least. The eight houses clustered on St. Paul Place, Pleasant Street and the alley off Mulberry Street are the last surviving row of downtown houses from that era; they were given "notable status" designation in 2001, which requires a year-long review of a demolition request.

Administrators at Mercy, which first publicized its expansion project a year ago, say they tried to incorporate the buildings into their expansion. But architects said it wasn't possible given the hospital's space needs and locale of its downtown site.

In June, Mercy enlisted the help of Councilman Mitchell to remove the demolition protections from the rowhouses, which have been used as offices since the 1970s. But instead of submitting legislation on Mercy's request, which would have triggered notification to preservationists and relevant city agencies, Mr. Mitchell piggybacked the change onto an existing bill on unrelated modifications to the central business district urban renewal plan. When the council approved that bill last month - and Mayor Martin O'Malley signed it into law - the Mercy rowhouses were removed from the notable list.

It was a legislative sleight of hand that fails the transparency test. Preservationists are now scrambling to have the houses protected as historic landmarks, and Mercy has filed for a permit to demolish the buildings. If the city grants the permit, preservationists could go to court to try to stop the demolition.

The benefits of the hospital's expansion - increased services to the community, 995 more jobs and an estimated $123.5 million in economic activity - outweigh retaining the houses at that site. But there is a way to spare them the ignominious fate of the Rochambeau building: Move them. Mercy officials have indicated they would consider discussing that possibility, but a resolution must be swift to keep construction costs from escalating.

It would be an intricate, costly project, but one that would save a piece of Baltimore's past and clear the way for Mercy's future.

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