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Razing the Rochambeau


Baltimoreans are going to get a better view of the newly restored downtown basilica, and the city will have one less historic building to its credit. That's the upshot of Mayor Martin O'Malley's decision to allow the Catholic archdiocese to tear down the Rochambeau apartment building on Charles Street.

Preserving the historic integrity of one building at the expense of another doesn't seem quite right, but the significance of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary as a landmark does eclipse that of its vacant Renaissance Revival neighbor.

As expected, preservationists are upset at the decision to grant the archdiocese a demolition permit. But there was no convincing church officials that the century-old Rochambeau, which it bought in 2001 for $3.5 million, should be restored. Mr. O'Malley says he was prepared to step in with financial aid to redevelop the vintage apartment house into residences, but City Hall clearly didn't make the diocese an offer it couldn't refuse.

It's easy to see why the Rochambeau was a hard sell - its apartments are small and run-down, there is no room for parking, and a city financial analysis said a renovation wasn't economically feasible without substantial public subsidies. And the city's chief lawyer determined that City Hall would lose in a court fight because a federal religious land-use law protected the church's right to do what it wanted with the property.

The church's single-minded focus - and understandably so - has been the restoration of the 200-year-old basilica, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe as the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral. In place of the Rochambeau, the archdiocese plans to build a prayer garden, which will be fenced, gated and open to the public. It may serve as a respite for basilica visitors, but it won't enliven the streetscape much.

Last year, as Mount Vernon residents debated a revised urban renewal plan for the area, the discussion often revolved around retaining the historic integrity of Mount Vernon and revitalizing this architecturally unique inner-city neighborhood. Taller buildings with more residents, the argument went, would enliven the Charles Street corridor.

The streetscape does need a boost, and the archdiocese can contribute to a renewed Charles Street by promoting the restored basilica complex to Catholics nationwide - not only as a place of worship but as a destination to begin exploring America's rich religious heritage.

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