St. Paul houses spared, for now

City gives Mercy demolition permit

preservationists quickly file appeal

December 09, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore granted Mercy Medical Center a demolition permit yesterday to tear down a row of historic downtown houses for its $292 million expansion, but within hours preservationists had mounted a challenge based on open-government violations.

Arguing that the permit was issued in a stealthily passed City Council law, Baltimore Heritage appealed, forging ahead with efforts to have the 1820s-era rowhouses declared landmarks before the hospital can tear them down and the city loses another piece of its history so soon after the razing of the 100-year-old Rochambeau.

"We think we have a really good argument that the legislative process was flawed," said Johns Hopkins, Baltimore Heritage's executive director. His organization's attorney, John H. Denick, added: "It should have been a more transparent process."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions on plans to tear down historic rowhouses near Mercy Medical Center mischaracterized how a demolition permit was granted. Baltimore housing officials issued a demolition permit after the City Council passed an amended bill that stripped the block of historic protection. The council's action did not address the issuance of a demolition permit.
The Sun regrets the errors.

By granting the demolition permit yesterday, housing officials might have undermined the efforts of another city body, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. Before Mercy applied for the demolition, the preservation board had scheduled a Tuesday hearing to consider two measures to protect the buildings.

In fact, Tyler Gearhart, the preservation board's chairman, formally asked Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano on Thursday to hold off on the permit until the board could consider making the buildings city landmarks, a decree that offers some protection from demolition.

Gearhart said yesterday that he was "disappointed and frustrated" that his letter "obviously was ignored."

"My view of the situation," said Gearhart, who is also executive director of Preservation Maryland, "is basically that Mercy hospital seems to have made every effort to avoid public scrutiny of their expansion plans and the city has made every effort to accommodate them."

The demolition standoff comes fresh on the heels of the City Council's passage of a bill, quietly amended by City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. at Mercy's request, to strip all historic protections from the 300 block of St. Paul Place, a row of buildings that are among the oldest left downtown.

The amendment erased the structures from a list of "notable" properties in the central business district's urban renewal plan, enabling the hospital to begin razing them without a one-year demolition deliberation process.

Mitchell introduced the amendment well into the legislative process - after the bill's public hearing before the Planning Commission. With no notification about the critical change, preservationists had no idea that the buildings had lost their protection until after the mayor signed the bill.

A key element of Baltimore Heritage's appeal rests on the argument that city officials did not change the title of the bill after it was amended. City law - and state law, for that matter - requires bill titles to reflect the substance of the legislation.

Avery Aisenstark, the city's director of legislative reference, confirmed yesterday that the bill's title never changed to reflect how Mitchell's amendment would affect the houses.

"If the body [of a bill] contains a provision that is not reflected directly or directly in the title, [the law] could be declared to be invalid," Aisenstark said.

With no public hearing on the matter, Denick said, the lack of an illustrative title effectively hid the bill's intent from the public view.

"It's very difficult," he said, "for the public and other members of the City Council to see we've taken these historic properties off of the list."

An administrative hearing on the permit appeal has been set for Jan. 19. In the case of Mount Vernon's Rochambeau, it took about a month for city housing officials to reconsider the permit.

Mercy officials say they're aiming to move as fast as possible with the demolition to begin building a new inpatient tower.

"The hospital is finalizing demolition plans and is moving forward," Gary N. Michael, Mercy's senior vice president of marketing, wrote in an e-mail to The Sun yesterday. "Mercy has retained a local demolition firm which is charged with removal of the rowhouse offices."

However, the buildings appear to be safe at least for the short term.

Over sandwiches yesterday, top Mercy executives, including Samuel E. Moskowitz, executive vice president for corporate strategy and development, promised Baltimore Heritage leaders that they'd hold off on demolition at least until the hospital could hire someone to do what's known as a "historical recordation" of the buildings.

That process typically involves taking photographs and making architectural drawings to document the details of buildings for posterity once they're gone.

Mercy officials also told Hopkins and Baltimore Heritage President Julian L. Lapides that they would consider the idea of allowing preservationists to try to move the homes - or parts of the homes - to another Baltimore location.

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