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Height Matters

Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association Battles To Keep Looming Skyscrapers Out Of The Neighborhood
MY, THAT’S A BIG ONE: Mount Vernon neighborhood boosters worry that the construction of tall buildings (as depicted in an artists’ rendition, right) will ruin the neighborhood.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 3/2/2005

The yellow signs, shaped like an arrow pointing down, appeared around Mount Vernon last week, in storefront doorways and on North Charles Street windows: “Fight The Height,” they say, warning of an impending invasion of skyscrapers defiling what they describe as “Baltimore’s finest architectural masterpiece: Mt. Vernon.”

The signs are part of a campaign by the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and some allied groups to stop a new urban-renewal plan for the midtown area that is five years in the making. The plan, says city planning director Otis Rolley III, proposes a maximum building height of 180 feet, about the height of the Washington Monument.

“The whole point of the plan is not just for historic preservation, but also to promote development,” Rolley says. “In absence of a plan, developers want to know what does the community want? People are going to go where they know what the rules are.”

The maximum allowable height near the monument will be about 100 feet, gradually increasing to 180 feet on the 1000 block of Charles, where the massive and magnificent Belvedere Hotel condominiums loom like a sovereign.

This plan would for the first time limit building heights in the neighborhood, says Gregory Reed, a board member of the nonprofit Charles Street Development Corp., which pushed for the lofty height limits and is in favor of the proposal.

The Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, which pushed for a much lower height limitation, of about 100 feet, depicts Reed’s group as the enemy, a tool of greedy absentee developers salivating at the thought of, the group’s materials state, “windfall profits in some distant future.” The materials do not explain why capping the height would increase the value of those parcels, given that there is no maximum building height limit in the neighborhood now.

“I’m glad you noticed that,” Reed says in an interview in the 18th-floor conference room of his law firm, Ballard, Spahr, Andrews, and Ingersoll L.L.P., overlooking the U.S.S. Constellation. “Our goal is to make it a thriving place. . . . Of course, the Number 1 priority has to be to preserve the architecture.”

To make Mount Vernon and Belvedere—roughly the four-block-wide area centered on Charles Street from Mulberry Street to Penn Station—thrive, Reed says, developers and land planners generally “agree that what is needed in midtown is a lot more residents.”

A few more apartment buildings or condos on land now occupied by parking lots can do that, Reed says, if the developers are allowed to build at least 250,000 square feet of floor space per building. He says below that the rents and sale prices per unit won’t allow the developers to profit.

Since most of the lots available for development are small, the only way to get 250,000 feet is to build up, he says.

Paul Warren, chairman of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association’s Development Committee, says the high height limit would merely reward long-term land speculators who have not contributed to the budding renaissance in the neighborhood. “They still won’t build until they can get downtown profits—it’s just that simple,” Warren says in a press release. He thinks a lower limit will protect the scale of the neighborhood while forcing the speculators to “move ahead with either selling or developing these important properties.”

Beyond that argument appears to be a philosophical difference of visions, with Reed’s people and the city planner seeing Mount Vernon as a more downtown-like mix of tall and short buildings, and the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association preferring a status quo, with more of an emphasis on stately single-family mansions.

“We want the Mount Vernon neighborhood to be one of America’s great historic districts,” says Charles Duff, executive director of the Midtown Development Corp. and an opponent of the increased heights. “You’ve got the [architecture] to do that. But if you built too many dramatic buildings, that will steal the neighborhood’s thunder. Then it becomes just another area near the downtown of a second-tier city.”

The proposed urban-renewal plan will go to public hearing before the City Council in late March or early April.

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