Plan would destroy Mount Vernon Place

Plan would destroy Mount Vernon Place

February 07, 2011|By Hugh C. Ronalds

Why does the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy want to turn Baltimore's most beautiful urban space into a massive construction site, destroying all of its mature trees and rendering the park unusable for years, while wasting millions of public dollars at a time when the city is cutting back on funding for schools and fire stations?

That is one of two questions we had when our group, the Save the Trees Alliance, attended a meeting recently with members of the conservancy. After viewing their presentation — one they had made many times before in several different settings — we were still seeking an answer. As our group's architect pointed out, the "Carrére and Hastings" design to which they now wish to restore Mount Vernon Place was just one of a number of different styles associated with the park over its almost 200-year history — and one for whose design there now exists only fragments of blueprint, for small portions of just two of the four individual parks that comprise the whole. And, as he further explained, by the time it was proposed for Baltimore, the style was outdated. It was very vigorously opposed here, and in fact there is no evidence that conservancy's tree plan is historically authentic.

In discussing the artistic merits of their proposal, we further argued that the rigid military formation of identical trees in the proposed landscape was far less attractive and ecologically sound than the existing, natural arrangement of diverse species we see today, so beloved by the public. Rejecting our comments, the members of the conservancy made it perfectly clear that they would not even consider an approach that was less destructive, more respectful of the environment and more economical.

Why? While it would be natural to speculate the answer lies in the large amount of public money they wish to acquire, there is a more benign explanation. Having chosen an out-of-state firm to create a grandiose plan with more than $250,000 of donors' money, they now find themselves stuck with it. Failing to ask for less destructive and costly alternatives, they now have a single plan, deeply flawed both artistically and historically, which trashes the environment and fails to answer the most basic questions with which they were presented in our meeting with them.

Conservancy members are simply unwilling to admit their mistake, cut their losses and now consider alternatives. Instead, they want to make a uniquely beautiful, historic American park into a pale Parisian imitation.

Our second question — and perhaps the larger one — is why such a destructive and poorly conceived plan seems to have received so much prominent institutional and political support, such as the Walters Art Museum, the Peabody Institute, the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, the Engineer's Club of Baltimore, and even Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. All this while the public opposes the plan — with more than 2,200 having signed petitions to stop the destruction of the park's 117 trees — and with two independent arborists having argued that such action is both unnecessary and unwarranted.

While we are horrified by its plan, we can only marvel at the conservancy's apparently unquestioned power and influence in our city. And we cannot avoid wondering if the persuasive powers of this group stem from an elite status in terms of wealth and prominence, which they do not shy from using to achieve their ends.

Today, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) will once again (for the fourth time) hold a public hearing to consider the plan. Although the commission thus far has held off approval of the landscape portion of the plan, it has not rejected it. Perhaps it is now time to do so. Such a rejection would stop wasting the time of those advocating and opposing the plan as well as well as that of the commission itself. And it will allow the already approved and much-needed repairs to the Washington Monument and its surrounding architectural features to be carried out.

Hugh C. Ronalds, a resident of Baltimore for 30 years, is a member of the Save the Trees Alliance (savethetreesalliance.com), an informal group organized to save the trees in the Mount Vernon Place parks.

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