Despite City Shortcomings, Demolition Set To Occur

A Chronicle Report
       BY THE TIME this newspaper hits the streets on the morning of December 1, a wrecking crew should be hard at work demolishing six century-old townhouses at the northwest corner of Charles and 25th Streets. In their place, a new CVS pharmacy and sundry goods store, with 100 feet of frontage on 25th Street, will be built.
      The demolition will be occurring despite errors of procedure committed by the city. And it will occur with the knowledge of neighborhood activists that they did everything within their power to stop it, but could not. Their only power now lies in legal wranglings they hope will ensure that the City will not be able to destroy usable historic buildings without strictly following existing laws and procedures, especially those regarding notification.
      In a letter sent to Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III on November 16, John F. Spurrier, president of the Charles Village Civic Association, expressed concern that the demolition permit for 12 West 25th Street was issued without providing the required notification to the adjoining property owner, as required by the City’s Building Code.
      Mr. Henson replied to Mr. Spurrier on November 19, writing, “After reviewing your concerns, we agree with the contents of your objection to issue this permit; however, due to the delay in the demolition of these structures, we have directed the owner and the demolition contractor to notify the adjacent property owner, in writing, of their intentions [sic] to demolish these properties.”
      “What delay?” demanded Joan Floyd, one of the activists with the Committee for Responsible Development on 25th Street who has been striving for a year to prevent the demolition. “We aren’t responsible for any delay. I only wish we were.”
      Written notice of the pending demolition was finally provided to the property owner at 14 West 25th Street by the developer’s attorneys on November 22.
      Reginald Scriber, executive director of the Neighborhood Service Center, Northern District, expressed concern that the Code was not followed, and praised his boss, Mr. Henson, for admitting the error. “While the letter of the Code wasn’t followed, that’s a technicality,” he said. “It’s not the kind of infraction that warrants a stoppage.”
      Since the CVS project fits within zoning regulations, and since the developer is private and no City money is involved in the project, opponents of the 25th Street demolition--including some officials in the City planning office--have no legal recourse to prevent it from occurring.
      Mike Savino, a supervisor of housing inspection for HCD working out of the Northern District Neighborhood Center, concurred with this assessment. “Legally, we can’t stop it,” he said.
      The demolition of six sound buildings by a private developer is unusual in the City. HCD, zoning and housing officials interviewed over the past year about the fate of the 25th Street buildings appeared to be confused or poorly informed about what notices are required to be given and when, often citing regulations and procedures that apply to condemned properties taken over by the City rather than to properties to be electively demolished by private parties.
      Mr. Savino said his division is kept very busy with demolishing unfit dwellings. “We took down 1,700 houses in each of the last two years,” he said. “We had 11,000 buildings unfit and vacant when we started, and we still have 11,000. As fast as we tear them down, new ones become vacant.”
      The problem can only grow more acute because an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 rental units are vacant in Baltimore City. As the properties inevitably deteriorate, demolitions can only be expected to escalate.
      Properties not subject to city historic designation are likewise menaced, because they currently can be demolished by private property owners with hardly a passing glance at community concern. (National designation, as in the case of the 25th Street buildings that sit in the Lovely Lane Historic District, means nothing when it comes to demolition.)
      “This is going to be the strangest-looking city,” predicted Ms. Floyd.

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This story was published on December 1, 1999.