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Washington Monument restoration changes atmosphere of Mount Vernon neighborhood

The $5 million project is scheduled to run until summer of 2015

By Nayana Davis, The Baltimore Sun

7:46 PM EDT, March 24, 2014

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The scaffolds enshrouding Baltimore's Washington Monument offer passersby a temporary skyline change, but some residents and small-business owners in the Mount Vernon neighborhood worry about the two-year project's impact on their lifestyles and livelihoods.

The monument, a central draw to the city's cultural hub, was closed in 2010 after an engineering study conducted by the nonprofit Mount Vernon Place Conservancy deemed it unsafe. The $5 million renovation effort will address structural deficiencies, clean grime off the monument, and include new roofing and electrical system, said Lance Humphries, chair of the conservancy's restoration committee.

Baltimore City and the conservancy manage the monument in partnership.

The project began in January and is scheduled for completion on the bicentennial marking start of construction, Independence Day 2015. It's being financed through city and state funds, as well as donations from individuals, foundations and businesses.

Yuri Kim, a 23-year-old Mount Vernon resident and musician, said the work has made it tough to find parking near her home and to drive in the area.

"It is a good thing they're doing it," she said. "But with every good thing comes the consequences."

Kim added that she sometimes notices the sounds from construction but isn't especially bothered by them.

"I feel like I'm so used to city noises," she said.

Humphries said the conservancy had informed the community ahead of time about potential problems on the road but hasn't heard many complaints.

"We hope if there are problems, the residents will let us know," he said.

Others were upset that the restoration prompted organizers of a few popular local events to choose venues in alternate city neighborhoods.

The Baltimore Book Festival, which has taken place in Mount Vernon for the past 18 years, will be held at the Inner Harbor this fall. The festival is set to return to its regular environs in 2015.

"Unfortunately, it is just not feasible to produce a high-caliber festival [in Mount Vernon] this year," Bill Gilmore, executive director of Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, said in a statement released earlier this month.

First Thursdays, a well-attended free summer concert series organized by Towson University's public radio station WTMD, is moving to Canton after 10 years in Mount Vernon. Organizers have not said whether the popular events would return to Mount Vernon following the restoration project.

Delaney Rosen, a 24-year-old recent Peabody Institute graduate who lives near the monument, said many of her neighbors will miss out on the functions because they don't own cars.

"The whole point of living in Mount Vernon is the cultural stuff, like these events," Rosen said.

Some business owners are concerned about the loss of revenue that will result from the events being relocated.

"I think [the restoration] is beneficial for the neighborhood," said Philip Han, owner of neighborhood cafe Dooby's Coffee. "But obviously we're losing the foot traffic."

Humphries said conservancy officials were surprised that First Thursdays and the book festival are leaving Mount Vernon.

"We hoped we'd be able to have alternate set-ups for this," he said.

FlowerMart, a neighborhood spring festival, still is scheduled to take place in Mount Vernon, as is the lighting of the monument during the winter holidays.

"We're not exactly sure how the [holiday] lighting is going to look," Humphries said.

Crews working on the monument recently finished erecting the scaffolding up to the George Washington statue atop the monument. In the coming weeks, they will work on cleaning and sealing the exterior with mortar.

Despite the hassles, Humphries said, restoring the city landmark now is well worth the effort.

"It's too important to have this done in time for the bicentennial," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Wesley Case contributed to this article.