Challenge to razing dropped

Baltimore Heritage ends fight with Mercy over historic houses

February 06, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Baltimore Heritage dropped yesterday its fierce two-month battle to save a row of historic downtown houses, clearing the way for Mercy Medical Center's $292 million expansion and exposing divisions among preservation advocates.

Officials with the preservation group lamented losing the 1820s-era homes - particularly so soon after their fight to save the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building ended badly. However, they said they had to pull the plug on what was becoming a costly, time-consuming and, perhaps, ultimately pointless exercise.

"We felt we would just be in the spot of being obstructionists rather than preservationists," said Julian L. Lapides, the president of Baltimore Heritage and a former state lawmaker. "Even if we won our suit it would be a one-year delay. We just decided we didn't want to be in the posture of obstructionists."

The move cancels a city appeals hearing set for today and will allow Mercy to begin razing the houses along the 300 block of St. Paul Place to hasten construction of a new inpatient tower.

"We were very pleased when they told us they were going to drop their objections and let us move forward," said Gary N. Michael, Mercy's senior vice president of marketing. This "keeps us on our original plan of construction."

Once word spread last fall that the City Council had, at Mercy's request, removed the historic protections from the homes, lovers of historic architecture rallied around the red-brick buildings and condemned City Hall for turning to stealthy tactics to speed up the hospital's expansion.

By dropping its challenge to the demolition, Baltimore Heritage has dismayed some preservationists - even some of the group's board members - who hoped to send a stronger message to city leaders.

"I always felt that the matter most important here was one of principle," said attorney John C. Murphy, a Baltimore Heritage board member. "If you allow this process for removing protected properties from legislation - and without anyone knowing about it - it's a very bad situation. I'm very disappointed."

As part of the agreement to drop the challenge, Mercy offered to donate money to a city preservation cause - the details of which are still being worked out, hospital officials say.

Some preservationists appreciate the hospital's gesture, but to others it smacks of a payoff.

"Mercy obviously would not have made the payment unless the appeal stopped," Murphy said. "It's not possible to see this as anything but what it is."

Though the hospital announced its expansion plans in 2005, the situation came to a head this fall when City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., at Mercy's request, drafted an amendment to an otherwise innocuous bill that removed the houses from a list of "notable" properties - a designation that required a one-year waiting period before demolition, among other things.

Preservation advocates - even the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation - knew nothing of the action until the bill was signed into law.

The city then granted the hospital a demolition permit, which Baltimore Heritage quickly appealed, citing violations of open government standards.

The meat of the argument involved city officials failing to change the title of the bill after Mitchell's amendment. City law requires bill titles to reflect the substance of the legislation.

While many thought that their argument carried some legal heft, Baltimore Heritage officials said that as the appeal costs mounted, they realized the best they could hope for was getting the "notable" status reinstated and making Mercy wait a year to begin demolition.

In 2006 alone, legal fees cost the organization $7,500, a substantial portion of its $75,000 annual budget.

Over the past few weeks, the hospital and the preservationists have met to try to find a compromise. Nothing worked.

Last month, Mercy offered to spend $400,000 to rebuild one of the houses in a city museum. But engineers the hospital hired to assess the proposal's feasibility said it would be impossible.

More recently, preservation-minded architects pushed the hospital to consider redesigning the tower so that the houses could remain - and city officials offered to close Pleasant Street to give the hospital more room. However, the change would have cost the hospital an extra $17 million, Lapides said, money it was unwilling to spend.

In addition to writing a check to a Baltimore preservation cause, Mercy has agreed to hire a professional to make a photographic record of the homes. Additionally, it promises there will be a display in the new tower commemorating the site's history.

"We'll take a look at the entire history and do a decent display on how Baltimore and Mercy have grown over the years," Michael said.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano worked to coordinate discussions between the parties, even though his department awarded the hospital its demolition permit.

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