City says hands are tied in demolition decision


If anyone but the Archdiocese of Baltimore had asked to demolish the 100-year-old Rochambeau, Baltimore's housing commissioner would have said no, he testified yesterday, explaining that the city's lawyers told him fighting the church would be "a futile effort."

At a hearing to reconsider the demolition permit he granted the archdiocese, Paul T. Graziano explained that he wouldn't have allowed a private developer to tear down the Mount Vernon-area apartment building because doing so would undermine the city's urban renewal policy of preserving historic buildings and spurring residential development.

But, he said, the city's interpretation of a federal law banning restrictions on the use of religious property appeared to leave Baltimore no choice but to grant the archdiocese's wish.

"If all the other facts were the same," Graziano said, "I would have denied the permit."

City Planning Director Otis Rolley III, testifying moments later, said he, too, believed razing the building was "unacceptable."

Though yesterday's hearing stretched on for the better part of the day, time is running out for the Rochambeau, a Renaissance Revival structure that has occupied the corner of Charles and Franklin streets since 1905. It sits next to the archdiocese's famed Basilica of the Assumption, celebrating its 200th birthday this year.

The archdiocese wants to build a prayer garden where the Rochambeau stands to better show off the basilica, which is undergoing a $30 million restoration. Eventually, church officials have said, they hope to use the site for a basilica visitor center.

The archdiocese was preparing to demolish the Rochambeau over the weekend. But church officials agreed to wait until after yesterday's hearing, which was arranged because the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and a small group of residents and business owners appealed the demolition permit issued last month.

Housing officials presiding over the hearing have 30 days to issue a decision. The challengers say they'll take the issue to court if it comes to that, but it's unclear if the archdiocese will raze the Rochambeau before that can happen.

David Kinkopf, the attorney for the archdiocese, said at the hearing yesterday that by seeking to demolish the Rochambeau, the church is "doing the work of an evangelist."

"That's the mission that's been handed to the archdiocese here, and this is what motivates their plan for a prayer garden," he said. "It goes to the heart of the founding of this country, the right of a religious organization to worship as they see fit without government interference."

But preservationists at the hearing to support the challenger's case said the city shouldn't have been so quick to abandon its principles -- even under the threat of litigation.

"Here we have the city officials in charge, saying they were following the urban renewal ordinance, doing everything they could to save the building, but because it's a church, they can't enforce their own city laws," said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage.

"We think the city ought to enforce its laws to their utmost ability evenly across the board."

Rolley testified that the city has been working to increase the residential density along Charles Street and to preserve worthy structures in the Mount Vernon area and elsewhere. This demolition, he said, "was not consistent with either of those objectives."

Furthermore, Rolley said, the Rochambeau razing appears to defy the goals of Bishop John Carroll, the country's first bishop who presided over the church at the time of the basilica's construction, and those of the cathedral's architect, Benjamin Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol.

"They wanted it to be part of the city, not a castle on the hill," Rolley said. "It was a gleaming example of how to build within the context of a city."

Though the archdiocese has maintained that it is not economically feasibly for the church to renovate the Rochambeau, which it has owned since 2002, as an apartment building, Graziano testified that he was willing to offer the church a significant subsidy to make the numbers work for a condo conversion.

The commissioner said he spoke to Mayor Martin O'Malley about giving the church a $900,000 subsidy to make the condo project doable in order to preserve the Rochambeau. But, he added, the church was determined to demolish the building.

"Did you ever say to them: 'Here are funds we could make available to you?'" Kinkopf asked, as Graziano responded: "I think it was very clear."

Pressed Kinkopf: "And you'd give these monies, no strings attached, to the archdiocese of Baltimore?"

"Yes," Graziano answered.

Assistant City Solicitor Shari Wilson insisted that the sole focus of the hearing should be to determine whether the city issued the permit correctly -- which she said officials did only after a year of consideration.

"There is no dispute that an objective of the urban renewal plan is to preserve historic buildings," Wilson said. "There is no dispute that the Rochambeau has historic merit. ... What is in dispute is whether the city properly issued this demolition permit."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad