Baltimore's Planning Commission put its seal of approval last night on a plan that would dictate how - and how high -one of Baltimore's most historic neighborhoods will evolve.
The board, bowing slightly to emotional pleas from preservationists, unanimously approved a renewal plan for Mount Vernon that would allow buildings to stand 200 feet tall - down from a 230-foot limit city planners envisioned.
More than 100 people packed the hearing, and for hours dozens of them testified, forcefully asserting their views on how tall buildings will either save or doom the neighborhood, Baltimore's oldest historic district.
"Somehow we need vibrancy. We've got to make [Baltimore] a 24-hour town, a world-class city," said Commissioner Javier G. Bustamante. "We have to think outside the box. I'm not for tall buildings, I'm for good buildings."
The goal behind the city's plan is to get more people on Mount Vernon's streets by encouraging denser development. Despite the neighborhood's grand architecture, cultural attractions and proximity to downtown, redevelopment dollars have largely left it alone as developers rush to invest in Federal Hill, Canton and Fells Point.
Mount Vernon's vacant lots and relatively stagnant retail life frustrate planners, residents and developers alike. By updating the neighborhood's outdated development guidelines, planners hope to set Mount Vernon in a new direction, giving it the vitality other areas of Baltimore are beginning to experience.
But how far to let developers go - specifically, how high they can build - all but froze the plan over the past five years. Preservationists insist that tall buildings will overwhelm Mount Vernon's streetscape, while developers say anything but tall is not worth their time.
Charles Street Development Corp., a group whose goal is revitalizing business along Charles Street, has insisted developers need at least 200-foot-tall buildings to make money. Preservationists argue that buildings higher than 100 feet will destroy Mount Vernon's historic character.
Development corporation Chairman Henry Hagan said that the Planning Commission's recommendation to trim heights "ignores economic reality." Preservationists breathed a sigh of relief and hoped the City Council would lower the limits even further.
The plan now goes to the City Council's urban affairs committee. A hearing date has not been set.
Initially, the city took a position between the two sides, advocating 150-foot limits with a possibility for developers who meet certain conditions to earn 30-foot "bonuses." The city then adjusted the plan in favor of builders, allowing for heights up to 230 feet.
Consultants for Charles Street Development Corp. flashed pictures before the commission last night of Philadelphia, first a colorless shot of the city in 1968 with a flat skyline, then in 1987, the city's skyscrapers twinkling against the evening sky.
"The mix of high and low works beautifully," said George E. Thomas of Civic Visions, contrasting that with Mount Vernon.
Paul Warren, a Mount Vernon homeowner leading the "Fight the Height" campaign, countered with his own visual aid - a slide depicting what Charles Street would look like with taller buildings crowding the brownstones and shops.
Saying density will benefit the community is like saying "good will leads to peace on earth," Warren said. "I would encourage those in the discussion tonight not to talk about density in an overglorified manner."
The plan not only eases the way for taller buildings, it saps power from the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, a government entity recently moved from the city Housing Department to the city Planning Department that has long kept a watchful eye on Mount Vernon development.
Near the Washington Monument, buildings taller than 70 feet would be prohibited. But heading away from the landmark, heights could reach up to 180 feet. Developers outside the monument zone could apply for 50 more feet if their project meets a number of standards, including "significant" architecture and accommodations for affordable housing.
To get the bonus footage, a developer would have to win approval from both the Planning Commission and the preservation panel. Though the plan would allow the Planning Commission to grant waivers should "any specific requirements" of the plan be deemed too restrictive, the commission voted last night to omit the waiver clause.
Preservation commission Chairwoman Judith Miller told the planning panel that despite initially favoring the recent move of her board to the Planning Department, she now believes it was done to silence it.
Though the plan would also create a new board - in addition to the preservation commission - from which developers would have to win approval before building in Mount Vernon, the planning commission advised last night against it. The nine-member panel would include representatives from business groups and neighborhood organizations and be led by the City Council member from the 11th District - now Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.
"This emasculates CHAP," Miller said, adding that Mount Vernon's charm is threatened without the panel's guidance.
Another consultant for Charles Street Development Corp., Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group, warned against stifling height limits.
"Please let us not be suburban in our attitudes and our thinking," he said. "Just when developers are getting excited about Baltimore we want to cap our potential - utterly frustrating."