After six months of deliberation, Baltimore's preservation commission gave conceptual approval Tuesday to an $18.5 million plan by the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy to replace trees and make other improvements to the city-owned parkland at the base of the Washington Monument, with the understanding that the group still must obtain final approval of its plan and provide proof of funding before any work can begin.
In granting conceptual approval for the parkland, which is in a historic district, the commissioners voted to approve the group's plans to remove most of the trees on the public squares north and south of the Washington Monument. However, they withheld approval of plans to replace most of the trees on the squares east and west of the monument.
The action by Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation gives the nonprofit conservancy the authorization it needed to begin raising money for the project, which it hopes to complete by 2015. In December, the commission gave the conservancy approval to repair the monument — which has been closed to the public since last spring — and other "hardscape" elements of Mount Vernon Place but not the landscaping.
The conservancy and its landscape architect presented a plan last year that called for 117 of the 118 trees in and around the four squares to be replaced with new trees in a slightly different configuration. The plan drew criticism from area residents and others opposed to cutting down mature trees in the heart of the city, and the commission postponed its vote.
At the start of Tuesday's meeting, conservancy representatives said they had modified their proposal to preserve certain trees, but still wanted to take down 114. The conservancy representatives promised to plant at least as many trees as are removed and to replace them with new trees at least 25 to 30 feet high.
During Tuesday's hearing, the conservancy's revised plan drew comments from more than a dozen speakers, who said they still questioned why so many trees were targeted for removal.
Commissioner James Cusask said he thought it might be considered "goofy" for the panel to support plans for only two of the four squares. But other commissioners said they believed it was important to approve the plan in concept because they wanted to show they support the conservancy's effort to complete park improvements.
"To do nothing would be the greatest travesty of all," commissioner Tom Liebel said, adding that the park is "in dire need of repair."
Henry Hopkins, chairman of the conservancy, said he was pleased with the panel's conceptual approval of its plan. "This allows us to move ahead," he said. "Once people see the north and south parks, I think everyone will be very happy."
Hugh Ronalds, a member of the Save the Trees Alliance, said he was glad the plan would get more review. "I think we slowed them down," he said. "We've saved the trees for now."