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Mobtown Beat

The Robots and the Rectory

A Futuristic Parking Garage Finds Foes in a Neighbhorhood that Prizes its Past

Frank Klein
Old Vs. New: Preservation Maryland is opposed to a plan to put

By Laura Lewis | Posted 7/28/2004

Building in Baltimore often requires compromise between the old and the new—designing structures that fit the city aesthetically and historically, while still accommodating the physical needs of modern development. But recently, plans for a new state-of-the-art automated parking garage have bumped up against the walls—almost literally—of a city landmark, and the people working to preserve the city’s history are not happy about it.

Developer David Hillman wants to build a 440-space robotic garage—a computerized parking system that places cars on individual pallets and into their spots until their owners pick them up—on a lot located at 18 W. Saratoga St. Hillman’s proposal is designed to satisfy the parking needs of the residents in Charles Towers across the street as well as the needs of other local residents and merchants, especially along the 300 block of North Charles Street.

“It’s a way to get the maximum potential out of the site,” says Hillman, CEO of Southern Management Corp., a Vienna, Va.-based company that owns and manages dozens of apartment complexes throughout the region. “A conventional garage can do 150 cars on site. This can do 450 cars.”

Hillman says he has the support of local businesses and politicians, but not all of his neighbors are being cooperative, including his closest neighbor: Preservation Maryland, headquartered in a historic landmark next door at 24 W. Saratoga St.

The statewide nonprofit dedicated to preserving Maryland’s historic buildings, landscapes, and archeological sites is housed in the former rectory of Old St. Paul’s Church, the oldest continuously occupied house in the city. For months, the group has been fighting the garage proposal.

“Our concern is the impact of the garage on our building in terms of height and scale and setback,” says Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland.

When the rectory was built overlooking Saratoga Street in 1791 to house Old St. Paul’s minister and his family, there was a clear view to the church down the street. It is still visible today, but the present parking garages, street lights, and other urban necessities block much of the view. Preservation Maryland says if the new garage were built, what remains of the visual link between the oldest continually occupied house in the city and the church will be destroyed.

“Our building is set back quite a bit from the street—about 40 feet,” Gearhart says. “So if we have a blank wall that would extend 40 feet along the building, it cuts us off from the streetscape.”

Since April, Hillman and Gearhart have been battling over the plans in front of the city Department of Planning’s Design Advisory Panel, a collection of architects, planners, landscape architects, and architectural historians who review proposals for new city construction.

In April, the panel told Hillman and architect Peter Fillat to rework their plans for a 120-foot-high structure to meet the Urban Renewal Zone’s 80-foot limit. The panel also asked Hillman to consider addressing Gearhart’s concerns by pushing the garage farther from the rectory wall and farther from Saratoga to preserve the view corridor—an idea Hillman finds ridiculous.

“On cloudy nights you can’t see the moon, either,” he says. “It’s not true. You cannot see the church from the front porch of that building. . . . It’s abject silliness.”

Another debate among garage supporters and opponents involves the continuity of architecture in the neighborhood.

“Some see it as a really huge problem, radical jumps of position between old and new buildings, while others see that as somewhat sexy, the old right next to the new,” says Otis Rolley III, director of the city’s Department of Planning.

Hillman—who has been recognized for his preservation efforts, including turning the old Standard Oil building on St. Paul Place into luxury apartments and the former Hecht Co. building into the Atrium apartment complex on North Howard Street—points to Washington, D.C., as an example of how the old and new work aesthetically together, an idea that Gearhart is unwilling to accept.

“Most people would agree that it has a bad impact on the building and has a bad fit for the streetscape,” Gearhart says.

At this point, Hillman is ready to build and tired of hearing about it. “I’d build it on top of their building if I could,” he comments. In reality, though, he says he explored other sites for the garage and found nothing viable. He wants to go forward with his latest plan that meets the 80-foot limit.

According to the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for economic development in downtown Baltimore, nothing can stop Hillman from doing that.

“Under the Urban Renewal Plan he’s got a legal right to build an 80-foot-tall building on that site,” says Downtown Partnership spokesman Mike Evitts. “There is virtually no way to oppose the project. He owns the land and he can do it.”

Evitts acknowledges the need for preserving Baltimore’s historic integrity, but explains that plans for Charles Plaza and Center Plaza involve a supermarket and other major retail components, which would revitalize the Charles Center neighborhood and require additional parking.

Much to the disappointment of Gearhart and Preservation Maryland, the Downtown Partnership testified in favor of Hillman’s plan, without, Gearhart contends, considering design.

“Everyone is universally in agreement that it would be a great to have a supermarket downtown,” Evitts says. “But it takes some configurations to make it happen. It’s hard to please everyone in something like that.”

But Gearhart says he understands the neighborhood’s potential—that’s why he thinks the garage is a waste. “My thought would be if they allowed him to build this garage, they’d be tearing it down in five years for something better,” he says.

But Hillman is emphatic about the need for parking and says that his automated garage is the best way to do it. He says he and Peter Angelos, who owns a lot of downtown office space, have difficulty finding tenants because they cannot provide adequate parking.

With the proposed garage, Hillman says, “we will have 150 spaces above our normal needs.” He says several restaurants are interested in discounted short-term parking, which is lacking in the city right now. He says his automated garage will be a welcome alternative to limited, expensive garage spaces and metered street parking.

While excited about getting a new technology, the Department of Planning’s Rolley says the city still must consider the bigger picture: building that integrates the old and the new.

“This issue is less historical preservation and more an issue of contextual architecture,” he says. “Looking at what you will see as you drive down the street, how those two buildings will relate . . . it’s difficult to accept that the sight views between the rectory and Old St. Paul’s will not be affected.”

Rolley says Hillman has gone out of his way to consider aesthetics in designing his garage, which the developer says will look more like an office building than a typical parking structure. Hillman says he’s done his “politicking” and knows that “city government is in favor of this garage.” But there is one more stumbling block in his path to building this garage.

“What I’m proposing doesn’t require any zoning changes,” he says. “It’s within the code. . . . The only hitch is the alley closure.”

Hillman has asked the city to officially shut down the North Sharp Street alley between the lot where his garage would be built and the Brown’s Arcade garage. He says that by closing that alley and installing special Dumpsters, Hillman will be able to offer nearby restaurants a “rodent-proof” alley.

Should Hillman get approval to close that alley, he says, he expects construction to begin within three to four months. But despite his air of confidence, Rolley says the city is still trying “our darndest to quantify the economic benefit to preserving a space or building.”

“It is the right building in the wrong place,” he says. “We support Hillman, we support the need for the parking places. . . . We’re trying our darndest to find a win-win here.”

As both sides await the city’s decision, Gearhart emphasizes that he is not opposed to new construction on Hillman’s Saratoga Street lot—he just thinks that the garage project consists of “poor design and planning,” and he is confident that the design panel will agree with him that it’s important to preserve the historic view.

“I’m assuming it’s not going to move forward,” Gearhart says. “I’m not sure the planning commission is going to buy into it.”

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