A key city historic preservation group unexpectedly weighed in on the most controversial aspect of Baltimore's Mount Vernon renewal plan yesterday, calling for severe restrictions on the height of new developments to preserve sightlines around two neighborhood landmarks.
The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation indicated yesterday it wants to extend historic protections afforded the area around the Washington Monument farther up Charles Street - essentially limiting buildings to no higher than 100 feet along the city's historic central artery.
In addition, the group's draft plan would limit any new construction in the neighborhood to no more than 150 feet - far less than the 230-foot maximum in the planning commission's latest recommendation released this month.
"This is different, obviously, from what we anticipated," said city Planning Director Otis Rolley III. "CHAP has made recommendations for much lower heights, and, under the current setup, they are the final word."
City planners hope the Mount Vernon renewal plan will give a boost to the area by encouraging denser development and getting more people onto the neighborhood streets, sparking residential and commercial growth.
But throughout the discussions and extensive debate, the most contentious issue has been how tall a development should be.
Preservationists say new buildings that are too tall will obstruct the views of the neighborhood's signature landmarks, the Washington Monument and Belvedere Hotel. But leaders of the Charles Street Development Corp., a group seeking to revitalize area business, says height is key to the new structures' success - insisting buildings of less than 200 feet would not make economic sense.
The latest proposal from city planners wants developers to be able to build as high as 230 feet if they meet certain criteria. Near the Washington Monument, buildings would be restricted to no more than 70 feet, with height limits increasing farther from the landmark.
CHAP, the city's preservation board, largely controls development in Baltimore's designated historic districts, including Mount Vernon. While the commission butts heads with developers from time to time, it has only rarely used its power to thwart major projects.
In a meeting that began Thursday night and concluded yesterday afternoon, the commission had been expected primarily to discuss design guidelines of the renewal plan.
But as CHAP members looked out over the Mount Vernon neighborhood skyline from the observatory of the Peabody Court hotel, they surprised city planners, preservationists and developers by deliberating on and nearly passing a resolution scaling back the maximum height of new buildings, particularly along Charles Street.
"Inherent to all of this is whether or not the height restrictions should be part of the design guidelines," said Commissioner Donald Kann. "Once the decision was made, we had a responsibility to respond under the charter, and we did."
City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a CHAP board member, sternly warned other commission members that they were on a "slippery slope." At Mitchell's urging, the commission decided not to make its decision final but instead labeled it a "final draft."
"I'm a big supporter of CHAP, but as a legislator, I think CHAP is overstepping its bounds," Mitchell said. "In my 10 years as a council member, this is unprecedented. You're laying out the guidelines before the bill."
Rolley said he would proceed with CHAP's recommendations. "At the end of the day, it's going to make it interesting," Rolley said. "Whether it's economically feasible for development at the heights they've determined is a question we're going to have to study."
Alfred W. Barry III, a planning consultant with Charles Street Development Corp., said the commissioners rushed to judgment yesterday.
"As a practical matter, the City Council's process to determine the urban renewal plan's standards should really be concluded before the commission sets artificial limits on height," Barry said. "This was extremely ad hoc consideration, which was confusing, to say the least."
Rolley noted that city officials are scheduled to review CHAP's structure and powers at the end of next month, and he suggested yesterday's actions on the Mount Vernon height issue could influence the commission's future.
CHAP and the planning commission are expected to hold additional meetings on Mount Vernon next month before sending the renewal plan to the City Council for final approval.