Mural Fails To Please Parking Garage Critics

August 06, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Eager to see construction begin on a controversial "robotic" garage and apartment project planned for West Saratoga Street, the building's developer has agreed to let a mural be painted on two sides, and Baltimore's planning department has offered to help secure funding for it.

Developer David Hillman of Southern Management Corp. in Vienna, Va., is working with the planning department and Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts to select an artist to create the mural on the west and north sides of a 402-space, 80-foot-high garage that he wants to build at 18 W. Saratoga St. One possible subject of the mural is university and hospital founder Johns Hopkins, who owned a house that once stood where the garage would rise.

City planners say the mural, estimated to cost $40,000, is required to satisfy the Central Business District Urban Renewal Plan, which prohibits buildings with "large expanses of blank facade."

FOR THE RECORD - An article Thursday about a parking garage and apartment building proposed for West Saratoga Street misidentified Baltimore's planning director. He is Thomas J. Stosur.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

But opponents of the project, neighboring property owners and tenants led by a nonprofit called Preservation Maryland, argue that adding a mural won't bring the building's design into compliance with the renewal plan. They say they are troubled by other aspects of the project as well, including its height, size and aesthetics. They want the city to reject Hillman's application for a building permit.

Matthew Kimball, an attorney and president of Preservation Maryland, said members of his group believe the garage and apartments would dwarf the three-story building that Preservation Maryland occupies next to the proposed construction site, the 1791 Old St. Paul's Rectory at 24 W. Saratoga St. He said painting a mural on the garage, even one honoring Hopkins, won't make it less objectionable to his group - and won't satisfy the law.

It would be like "putting lipstick on a pig," Kimball said. "It's window dressing. It disguises the issue at hand, which is the sheer size of a building that would dwarf the rest of the block. Johns Hopkins is a great city father. That's not the issue to us. The issue is how they have been sweeping other issues under the rug. ... We think the whole process of how this has been handled has been run off the rails, and it needs to be corrected."

Kimball last week wrote to Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake requesting that she ask the Planning Commission to hold a hearing to determine whether the city should issue a construction permit for Hillman's project.

Rawlings-Blake is investigating the matter, according to a spokesman, Chris Williams. "If there's a perception that they haven't gotten their say, she wants to make sure" that doesn't happen, he said.

Hillman, who has been trying since 2004 to obtain city approval to build a garage on Saratoga Street, has said he needs it to attract tenants in nearby apartment buildings he owns. He and his designer, Peter Fillat Architects, later added 19 apartments facing Saratoga Street.

The garage portion has been described as "robotic" because it would be built without ramps, leaving more room to park cars. Vehicles would be transported to and from parking spaces within the structure by mechanical lifts, and the garage's upper levels would have no windows because people would not occupy them.

Kimball argues that putting "a coat of paint" on windowless walls doesn't make them any less blank.

Stosur said his staff's position is that adding a mural will address the issue of the blank walls.

"I guess we read it a little differently than they do. The term of 'blank facade' is not defined. It's open to interpretation."

While property owners have debated the project for years, another group recently expressed interest in it. Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University, said officials there were unaware of plans for a mural honoring Johns Hopkins and would like to be consulted if it moves ahead. "We think we could be helpful," he said.

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