Panel votes to protect houses

City landmark status meant to keep Mercy from razing buildings

December 13, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Baltimore's preservation board unanimously approved measures yesterday that wrap a row of historic downtown rowhouses with protections against demolition - effectively defying city officials who just days ago granted Mercy Medical Center a permit to raze the properties.

In an emotional two-hour hearing, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation heard how the block of red-brick houses, built nearly 200 years ago on what is now the 300 block of St. Paul Place, should be spared not just because of their age but because of their rich role in Baltimore's African-American history.

Representing the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Arlene B. Fisher advocated protecting the buildings because of their former owners and tenants, including the first school in the city to grant higher education degrees to blacks.

"The history of a building is not just a facade," she said. "It's the people who came through them."

Meanwhile, hospital officials testified that demolishing the buildings is the only way to build a planned $292 million inpatient tower and that any attempt by the board to prevent or delay Mercy from doing it would be "moot" and "unlawful."

"If Mercy's attorneys feel this hearing is improper," said Julian L. Lapides, president of Baltimore Heritage and a former state lawmaker, "I want them to know the real impropriety is tearing down these buildings."

But Samuel E. Moskowitz, Mercy's executive vice president for corporate strategy and development, told the board that razing the homes is the only option to move ahead with a project that will bring millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to Baltimore. "It's the only way that's logically and economically feasible," he said.

Even though yesterday's hearing to consider making the rowhouses city landmarks was already scheduled, city housing officials on Friday granted Mercy a demolition permit.

The permit came shortly after the passage this fall of a City Council bill, quietly amended by Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. at Mercy's request, that stripped all historic protections from the houses, including a provision that required a one-year demolition deliberation process.

Preservationists, who quickly appealed the demolition permit on the grounds that it was based on a law that people didn't get proper notice of, filed yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court for an injunction to stop Mercy from tearing down the buildings.

In its votes yesterday, the preservation board agreed to protect the St. Paul Place houses with "city landmark" status and to "special list" the buildings to prevent demolition for six months while the landmark legislation has time to make it to the Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council.

Jack Breihan, a Loyola College history professor, pleaded with the board to approve the rarely used "special list" rule, a tactic he called "the nuclear option."

"If you're saving it up for anything," he said, "this might be a good time to use it because this stinks."

It's unclear whether the designation would trump the issuance of the demolition permit. City attorneys and the board discussed that matter in closed session yesterday.

In a letter to the board, Ryan J. Potter, Mercy's attorney, questioned the tactic's legality, adding that, "In the event that Mercy is confronted by [the preservation board] with further unlawful burdens and delays, our client reserves the right to pursue all of its legal remedies, including damages and attorneys' fees incurred as a result of efforts to obstruct its plans to build its replacement hospital for the people of Baltimore."

Councilman James B. Kraft, a member of the preservation board, pressed Moskowitz about the wisdom of tearing down the homes before the hospital has its financing finalized and its "certificate of need" from the state - which Mercy must have to begin building.

Kraft reminded Moskowitz that six years ago, developers demolished the 81-year-old Southern Hotel on Light Street for a $120 million hotel and office tower that never materialized. "Is this headlong rush really necessary?" Kraft asked. "I'd hate to see you tear these down and not get a certificate of need or not get funding or have the bond market turn not-so-favorable."

Moskowitz responded that the hospital has committed more than $1 million out of its own pocket for the project, "a commitment that was not made on the assumption that we're going to have another Southern Hotel."

City planners showed the board a copy of an 1827 city directory that listed all of the homes and their owners - a collection that included a grocer, a couple of merchants and an auctioneer.

They also pointed out detail after detail of how the buildings intersected with the city's African-American heritage. For instance, in the early 1900s, blacks - some former slaves - and whites lived together there, even when the city law kept blocks racially exclusive.

"African-American history is a very fragile and ephemeral history," said board member Eva Higgans. "Here in Baltimore we have a great physical manifestation of a very rich and, Mr. Moskowitz, a priceless history."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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