Three historic carriage houses in Mount Vernon were spared from partial demolition Tuesday, when Baltimore’s preservation commission turned down a developer’s plan to construct a six-story apartment building behind their front facades.
Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted 8 to 1 to overrule its own staff’s recommendation and disapprove of developer Howard Chambers’ concept plan to build a 65-unit, $9 million apartment building at 1014 to 1020 Morton St.
Chambers proposed to keep the first 15 feet of each carriage house and build a new structure behind them. He also proposed preserving the entire carriage house at 1012 Morton St.
CHAP commissioners voiced concerns that the height and massing of the six-story structure would overwhelm the preserved portions of the carriage houses and detract from the block.
The proposal also didn’t receive support from the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association’s Architectural Review Committee, the Baltimore Heritage preservation advocacy group and several other speakers who either live or work in the area.
“This is… the wrong thing in the wrong place, period,” said panel member Larry Gibson. “This is just putting a big building behind [the carriage houses.] I am opposed to anything close to this kind of treatment of these buildings on Morton Street.”
“There is no other street like this in Baltimore,” said panel member Matthew Mosca. “We’d end up destroying what makes the neighborhood attractive.”
This was the third time Chambers had proposed altering the carriage houses, which he owns and which date from the 1800s. In 2005, he proposed tearing them down entirely and replacing them with 50 to 60 condominiums, a plan that drew strong opposition from the community. In 2006, he proposed tearing down one carriage house and the backs of two more to build 30 condominiums, another plan that didn’t materialize.
Chambers said in an interview before the hearing that he decided to try again in part because he was encouraged by CHAP’s decision to approve a request by developer Dennis Richter to tear down the Eddie’s of Mount Vernon grocery store at 7 W. Eager St. and the former Eager House restaurant at 13 W. Eager St. to make way for a 10-story apartment building.
In his remarks to the preservation panel, he noted that he saved the Morton Street carriage houses by investing to fix them up for tenants.
“The buildings are structurally sound,” he said. “I made that street what it is today. Those buildings were falling down.”
Chambers told the panel that the buildings at 1014 and 1016 Morton are vacant, and that he has been trying for two and half years to lease them. He said companies once were attracted to those buildings because of their size and charm, but times have changed.
“The present desire for 3,000-square-foot spaces is pretty limited. They’re all going to WeWork spaces. The need for that type of space is virtually nil. Talking to my broker, the value is to convert it to residential.”
Chambers argued building 65 apartments on the property would add more people to patronize shops and restaurants nearby and watch out for criminal activity. He mentioned a recent night in which seven cars were set on fire in Mount Vernon, including several that were parked less than a block from his carriage houses.
Chambers said he has heard comments that there are too many parking lots in Mount Vernon and developers should build on them before tearing down existing structures.
“I don’t own those lots,” he said. “I am tired of nothing happening in Mount Vernon. You see all the activity in Station North, Hampden, Remington. What is the problem with Mount Vernon? The problem is that Mount Vernon is resistant to change.”
By adding 65 apartments, “that’s about 100 people living on the street,” he said. “What we’re trying to do there is create some activity that hasn’t been there for a long time.”
Chambers said he thought the design by architect Chris Pfaeffle of Morris & Ritchie Associates was a good combination of preservation and new construction.
“We can’t do much about those parking lots,” he said. “We don’t control them. So why don’t we try something different? Let’s take these buildings and do something with them, and bring some life back into that neighborhood.”
Pfaeffle told the panel he once had his office in one of the carriage houses. He said he didn’t see the project as demolition. He noted that the front of 1016 Morton would serve as the entrance to the apartments above, and other preserved fronts would be entrances to the new shops at street level.
“We see this as an addition,” he said of the six-story structure. “We really see this as an insertion. This is a strategic work of design that is intended to keep the scale [of the carriage houses]… You can walk into the cool old building to get to the cool new building above.”
Chambers was also supported by one of his tenants, Nick Sekscenski of Charm City Crossfit at 1012 Morton. Sekscenski said the influx of apartment residents could help decrease crime in the area and bring customers to businesses such as his. “More people in the area, more foot traffic, will help,” he said.
CHAP has authority to review the proposal because the carriage houses are in the Mount Vernon Historic District, and any changes to their exteriors by law must be approved by the preservation commission.
In scheduling the proposal for a hearing, however, the commission and its staff did not treat it the same way it would typically treat a request to demolish a building in a historic district.
In cases where demolition is proposed, CHAP ordinarily follows a two-step process in which it uses the first hearing to determine whether a building contributes to the historic district it’s in. If the building is deemed a contributing structure, there’s a second hearing on why it’s not feasible for the owner to save it as art of a redevelopment plan.
In this case, CHAP treated the project as an addition to an existing structure or structures, and therefore did not follow the two-step hearing process.
Several speakers and commissioners questioned the way the project was being reviewed. They said they thought the proposal should be treated as a demolition permit application, since it called for so much of the carriage houses to be torn down.
The panel “should follow the demolition process, not the process for additions,” said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage. “Three quarters of these buildings would be removed. When you remove the majority of a building, that’s demolition.”
Steve Shen, representing the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, said CHAP’s process was the main reason his organization did not support the proposal.
“We’re mainly opposed to it on a procedural basis,” he said. “We… believe that it should go through demolition hearings 1 and 2.”
Shen said his organization also wants “high quality” development. “What we’re trying to do is encourage more projects that raise the bar,” he told the panel.
Other speakers said they lamented the amount of proposed demolition, no matter how the proposal was reviewed. They agreed with Chambers about the need for more residents in the area, but they don’t believe property owners should tear down historic structures to get them. They said the 1000 block of Morton Street is memorable precisely because it is an intact row of carriage houses that haven’t been replaced with larger structures.
Paula Fernandes, a Mount Vernon resident, said she moved to Baltimore from London, where mews such as Morton Street are revered. “This is not merely an addition but a drastic change” to the streetscape, she said. “The value is not just in the facades but in the whole buildings.”
Christopher Hyde, a Mount Vernon resident, said the carriage houses should be saved as monuments to the immigrants who once worked there.
“The proposed development would destroy these buildings,” he said. “There are very few of these buildings around, anywhere in the world.”
Steve Ziger of Ziger Snead Architects, which has its offices at 1006 Morton Street, questioned whether saving the first 15 feet of the carriage houses is enough to preserve their integrity.
“Fifteen feet is less than half of the width of this room,” he said. “The setback here turns the elevations into a parody, into a joke… It’s a question of where is the cutoff between what is a demolition and what is a significant addition.”
Chambers said after the hearing that he was unsure how to proceed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “They basically said no to everything.”
“It’s frustrating,” he said later. “I think our project really would have helped the area.”
In other action, CHAP postponed a decision on a request to demolish the former Martick’s restaurant building at 214 W. Mulberry St., until it could get more information about the extent to which retaining the building would be a hardship for the developer.