In a case that highlights the increasingly bitter battles over demolition in downtown Baltimore's ornate but often vacant office landscape, a judge ruled yesterday that a developer had a right to start tearing down two nearly century-old buildings.
Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller said that hotel developers led by Donald J. Urgo Sr. had a valid demolition permit and were facing pressure from a bank to quickly take down 17 Light St. and 109 E. Redwood St. when their contractors swung the wrecking ball Monday night.
The crushing of part of the Merchants and Miners Transportation Co. building on Light Street sparked protests from preservationists, who sped to the home of an appeals court judge in the middle of the night to win an emergency injunction.
Heller said yesterday that the injunction will stand until further hearings by the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis.
The decision means that the partially demolished building, with its steel innards hanging out, ceiling collapsing and bricks on the sidewalk, will remain in a legal limbo for the next few days or weeks as Redwood Street continues to be closed to traffic.
Preservationists plan to argue to the appeals court that the city should not have granted the demolition permit, because a 1977 city ordinance calls them a "valuable cultural, aesthetic and historic resource" - part of a regal-looking valley of financial buildings once called the "Wall Street of the South."
Hanging in the balance is a 125-room Marriott Residence Inn that the developers want to build in place of the two buildings at the intersection of Redwood and Light streets.
But there are larger issues rumbling beneath the rubble.
To some business leaders, the remains of 17 Light St. are a turn-off to any developer who would think about investing in a poverty-burdened city - frightening evidence that local preservationists will go as far as obtaining late-night court orders to save old buildings.
To preservationists, the aborted demolition is the fault of a bumbling city government that can't seem to read its own ordinances that encourage the preservation of Redwood Street. They say City Hall doesn't seem to care about architectural treasures that make "Charm City" different than chain-store America.
"Baltimore's unique character as defined by its historic architecture should be embraced as one of the city's greatest economic assets," said Tyler Gearhart, whose 3 1/2 years as executive director of Preservation Maryland have been marked by growing activism.
Roger Lipitz, chairman of the board of the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city's development agency, said he believes in a "reasonable balance" between preservation and economic development, but that attracting jobs is, in general, a higher priority for a poor city.
"When preservationists go beyond what is reasonable, it stifles economic development," said Lipitz. "Preservation is rarely a problem in building out in the counties. Developers will say, it isn't worth building in the city, and they'll go elsewhere - and if this happens often enough, it will mean the economic death of the city."
Robert C. Embry Jr., a former city development director who now heads a philanthropic organization called the Abell Foundation, said it's wrong to portray the fight over Redwood Street as one that pits development against preservation.
Embry's foundation has offered to buy the threatened buildings from the developers, and he said he is optimistic that he could find a development firm that would be willing to renovate and re-use the 96-year-old Merchants and Miners building and the 84-year-old former Sun Life Insurance building on Redwood.
"The hotel in question could be put in any number of other locations in the city, and I'm sure that the two threatened buildings will be used for economic development if they are allowed to stand," Embry said.
An engineer hired by the city, Burruss Holloway, testified yesterday that the Light Street building, whose top two floors were seriously damaged by wrecking crews Monday, is unsafe and should either be shored up at a cost of at least $50,000 or demolished while Redwood Street remains closed.
"The falling debris causes an unsafe situation on the street," said Shawn Karimian, a city director of construction and building.
Judge Heller said that the developers were within their rights to start demolition Monday because past attempts by the preservationists to win an injunction had failed. "There was nothing legally preventing the demolition from moving forward," Heller said.
"They were racing against the clock," she said, to prevent preservationists from filing more attempts at appeals that would drag out the project so long their financing would disappear.
The judge added, however, that the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis should consider whether to continue or dissolve Judge Charles Moylan Jr.'s Monday-night injunction to halt the demolition. No date has been set.
Preservationists want the injunction to stand until a Nov. 14 hearing before the appeals court on whether the city should have granted the permit last December.
Urgo said the protracted legal battle is threatening to kill the project and throw his family's development business into financial jeopardy. This is unfair, he said, because his company won all necessary city approvals and permits. It has twice fought off appeals by preservationists and spent nine months and more than $100,000 studying whether it could build a Marriott inside the vacant old offices before concluding it could not.
"We've done everything required of us - and more - in an effort to promote urban redevelopment," Urgo said. "If these unwarranted delays cause us to fail, it will be a significant financial loss for our company.
"More importantly, it will portend a far greater loss for the future of development in the city of Baltimore."