Outrage in Charles Village Over Demolition for CVS

by Alice Cherbonnier
       ON THE MORNING of Friday, September 9, a City wrecking rig was swatting its ball against four burned-out century-old townhouses on the west side of North Charles Street, just above 25th.

       That evening, demonstrators gathered at the site, letting rush hour drivers know how they felt about the demolition. “This is a sneak attack on our community,” said Laura Malick of Waverly. “The City is rewarding people who let their buildings fall into complete disrepair.”

       Retired teacher Rick Noble, a Charles Village resident, said, “The city needs its people and its architectural integrity, and without either, the city ceases to be.”

       And Paula D. Branch, a computer analyst and resident of Better Waverly, said, “Every other main street in the country fights for preservation. Here we have a Mayor who upholds demolition.”

       While normally the removal of a public eyesore brings rejoicing to neighbors, in this case the it had the opposite effect. Demolition opponents cite a lack of process involving the community, and a long history of dissatisfaction with the city bureaucracy regarding the the buildings.

       Despite vociferous community efforts over a five-year period to have the City force the property owner to renovate the now-demolished Charles Street buildings, nothing was done. The buildings became increasingly derelict, attracting trash, weeds, rats, and homeless people.

       Three townhouses backing up to the burned buildings were vacant and for sale or lease during that time, but businesses understandably shied away from locating next to what was becoming a slum.

       Then, nearly a year ago, following the announcement that CVS had contracted with developers to raze the site for a new building, the burned buildings were condemned--meaning they were declared unfit for habitation, not that they were irreparable. It was this designation, however, that allowed the City’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to demolish them 10 months later, without any warning to community activists.

       HCD can acquire demolition permits much more quickly than can private parties; all it needs is verbal agreements from the various city agencies involved.

       Those observing the demolition expressed concern that no effort was made to save architectural details of the buildings, and there was no sign of any effort to mitigate lead or asbestos dust that might have entered the atmosphere.

       According to Zack Germroth, HCD spokesperson, the City typically recovers the costs of demolition by placing liens on the properties.

       The developers for CVS plan to demolish a total of six three-story townhouses facing West 25th Street as well. Community activists are intent on at least saving their facades, and have mounted legal challenges to the entire project. They have also gathered over 3,000 signatures on a petition calling for CVS to preserve the architecture or it will be boycotted by the signers.

       David Tanner, Zoning Administrator, ruled against the activists’ appeal, which was based on the fact that the property lies in a special City “parking district.” He said the regulation in question, which calls for a City Council ordinance for parking lots, does not refer to lots adjacent to businesses, but rather to commercial parking lots. Mr. Tanner’s ruling is being appealed to the Baltimore City Circuit Court, with representation from attorney David M. Silbiger. At the same time, an injunction is being sought to prevent the demolition of the 25th Street properties pending resolution of the appeal.

       On Friday, October 1, a telephone conference hearing was held on the merits of the injunction request, with Circuit Court Judge Gary I. Strausberg presiding. The developers claimed they would suffer irreparable harm and potential loss if the stay of demolition were granted. The attorney for the Committee for Responsible Development on 25th Street, chaired by Douglas Armstrong, argued that zoning law favors the most restrictive interpretation of provisions and that “shall” in a regulation means “must.”

       [As this newspaper went to press, the judge’s decision was expected momentarily. The buildings on 25th Street may already be torn down as this is being read, if the judge ruled against the stay.]

       A demolition permit on the 25th Street properties was applied for several weeks ago, but as of October 1 it had not been issued. Sarah Barrett, in the City permits section, is the one who signs off on all demolition permits issued in Baltimore City. “The applicant still needs signatures from the various departments,” she said. “It’s been several weeks. I don’t know what’s holding it up.”

       PRESERVATION LOOPHOLES: Those working to preserve the facades of the 25th Street buildings say they wish they’d applied for historic preservation status for Charles Village.

       That would have taken too long in this case, and as it turns out, such status may not be any kind of guarantee.

       Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of the Baltimore City Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) since 1981, says, “People don’t know that National Register designation does not protect from demolition or structural changes. You have to get the local [historic] designation to have teeth.”

       In order to achieve local preservation status, there should be “a healthy majority of property owners” supporting the application, she said.

       A community wishing to have such status should inform the Mayor and CHAP of their intent, and provide a petition. “It takes interest on the part of the communities and owners to make it happen,” she said.

       The Planning Commission, Mayor’s Office, and CHAP are all involved in the process after the application is submitted. If the request is approved, an ordinance is then submitted to the City Council to create a historic district or designate a landmark.

       Once that designation is achieved, any permit request for exterior work or demolition would be referred to CHAP, which would then hold a public hearing before work can proceed.

       The designation process generally takes about a year, according to Ms. Kotarba.

       Before a permit could be issued in a local historic district, said Ms. Kotarba, “A developer must show economic or structural reasons for demolition. We have a well-established procedure for dealing with demolition [requests].”

       Without the local designation, National Register status does not protect a community from unsuitable and even ruinous development or alterations. Ms. Kotarba is concerned that both Fell’s Point and Federal Hill, while National Register districts, do not have local designation.

       While CHAP is under the umbrella of the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), Ms. Kotarba says CHAP is independent. As an example, she pointed out that CHAP backed the National Register designation for the West Side development project, though other city agencies did not approve.

       While the fate of the 25th Street buildings hangs on legal technicalities, the future of another 100-year-old structure may be more rosy. The Northern District Police Station in Hampden is under consideration for local historic designation. A prime mover in the process is Greater Homewood Renaissance, a revitalization effort connected with the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. “When the police move out, the building will be re-used,” Ms. Kotarba predicted.

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This story was published on October 6, 1999.