The Roman Catholic Church is immersed in yet another property rights clash in Baltimore, this time in Fells Point, where Franciscan friars and neighborhood activists have squared off over plans for a former church with deep sentimental value to the Polish community.
The friars want the city to disregard the wishes of a local task force so that developers can build condominiums on the site of the former St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church complex. Neighborhood volunteers, however, spent more than a year working with city planners to revamp the area's outdated zoning, ultimately choosing rules for the site that would scuttle the condo plan.
The friars, the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the politically connected law firm that backed Catholic institutions in two recent high-profile preservation disputes are pressuring city leaders to ignore the task force. The community and its City Council representative have vowed to stand by the zoning changes.
"You have this perception that not only does the Catholic Church do whatever it wants," said City Councilman James B. Kraft, "it can do whatever it wants without repercussion."
That perception, Kraft said, stems from the church's recent successes in trumping preservationists. First, the archdiocese, claiming that its status as a religious institution exempted it from city land-use laws, demolished the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building in Mount Vernon to build a prayer garden. And then Mercy Medical Center arranged to have the historic protections stripped from a row of 1820s-era houses along St. Paul Place so it could demolish them for a hospital expansion.
"Those cases were pretty sickening," said Dan Kuc, a Fells Point Community Organization board member. "After watching that happening, people are even more determined to keep these developers from destroying a historical section of Fells Point."
More than two years ago, the Franciscan friars dashed the hopes of a group of former parishioners by deciding to sell the shuttered church to developers. The group had hoped to turn the South Ann Street church, built in 1889 for the city's Polish community, into a Slavic heritage museum.
The friars, who said they worried the ex-parishioners wanted to open a renegade church rather than a museum, sold the valuable property to developers affiliated with Mother Seton Academy, a free Catholic school for low-income children that has operated since 1991 from the St. Stanislaus complex. In addition to building 23 luxury condos, the developers promised to renovate the old church into a better home for the academy.
The former parishioners have sued the friars, alleging contract fraud. The case is due before Maryland's Court of Special Appeals in May.
Although some in Fells Point endorse the condo plan, many others refuse to condone what they call the "gutting" of the church to make way for the academy.
"They would desecrate the entire interior of the church," said Michael Sarnecki, who attended St. Stanislaus until the archdiocese closed it in 2000 and is part of the museum group. "With the Catholic Church, they're not worried about preservation. They're not worried about the people or how they feel."
Kuc, who is also a former parishioner, said the condo plan, with its church gutting and demolition of other buildings in the complex, harms the historic character of Fells Point and pains those to whom the church once meant everything.
The Franciscans demolished the rectory last summer. For months afterward, people laced flowers through the chain-link fence surrounding the site, as if they were decorating a grave.
About the same time the friars were preparing to sell St. Stan's, Baltimore's planning department and Councilman Kraft assembled a task force of people representing southeastern neighborhoods from Patterson Park to Little Italy. The goal was to update the city's zoning code, some parts of which hadn't been touched since the 1970s.
After months of negotiations, the task force settled on recommendations for Fells Point, trying, on some streets, for a less commercial feel.
That was the thinking for the St. Stanislaus complex.
"We wanted something gentler, with less density and less impact," said Ellen von Karajan, executive director of the Preservation Society in Fells Point.
But the type of zoning the task force had in mind would only have allowed the developers to build about 11 condos, not the 23 they wanted.
The friars say the sale of the property hinges on the developers, the Hampton Co., being able to build everything and that any attempt to "down-zone" the land would be "improper, unlawful and contrary to the best interests of both the local community and the city at large."
"By all accounts, the recommendation to down-zone ... is intended as a late attempt to inhibit an exciting and beneficial project," said the Rev. Robert A. Twele, treasurer of the Franciscans' St. Anthony of Padua Province, in a six-page letter to Kraft and Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, chairman of the council's land-use committee, which will vote on the matter at 2:45 p.m. today. The full council will have the final say.
"[M]embers of [the Fells Point Community Organization] continue to oppose our efforts, for reasons that we can neither understand nor articulate," Twele continued. "Candidly, we do not know what more we can or should do to win the support of these few remaining opponents, as it seems that there is virtually no plan we could propose for our property that would be satisfactory in their eyes."
Kraft says that he will not support the friars' zoning request unless the Fells Point Community Organization does. The group has rejected the developers' appeal.
At the request of the developers and the friars, the city's planning department is advocating the more intense zoning. The city's Planning Commission recently voted in favor of it as well.
Kraft said he's not sure if his fellow council members will abide by the body's long-standing courtesy rules, in which the council defers to the will of a member on issues that affect only his district.
Kraft concedes that the developers and the friars have tried to appease the community by offering, for instance, to spare a home on Aliceanna Street that dates back to the 1700s. If the community blocks the project, he worries the friars might suggest something much worse -- like demolishing the church itself.
The church has no historic protections.
"My fear is that the Franciscans may just demolish the site because it is theirs," Kraft said.
The friars' attorneys have also pelted Kraft with correspondence, including a recent seven-page letter hinting at both a possible lawsuit and the friars being forced to build "a suburban-style commercial project" on the site.
The attorneys are with Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, the archdiocese's firm of choice whose managing partner is close to former mayor and now Gov. Martin O'Malley. That firm represented the church interests in the Rochambeau and Mercy disputes.
"[T]he friars do not wish to be immersed in litigation with Baltimore City," attorney Ryan J. Potter wrote. "We certainly do not intend for this to be perceived as a threat of some kind."
Mark Walker, a Fells Point activist, said he's dismayed that the city seems ready to toss the community's wishes aside for the church, something he sees as part of the city's tendency to disregard neighborhood concerns in general.
"From what I've seen in the past year with Mount Vernon's Rochambeau, Federal Hill's height fights, and Canton's Icon, I'm not convinced that Baltimore City is truly looking out for the best interest of the communities they're suppose to represent," Walker said. "Sometimes, it makes you question why Baltimore City even bothers having zoning laws. Every time a developer comes knocking at their door and they smell money, they find some lame excuse to modify the existing zoning laws in their favor."