In Mount Vernon, a historic preservation fiasco
Baltimore housing: No penalties for developer who destabilized – then demolished – historic townhouse
Eight months after the department was ordered to complete a report on the mistakes leading to the historic building’s teardown, there apparently will be no accountability
Above: Rising in Mount Vernon, the City House Charles project, which destabilized the historic building beside it on Eager Street. (Fern Shen)
Last year, a 160-year-old architectural gem in the Mount Vernon historic area – 4 East Eager Street – was so undermined by construction taking place next door that the building, buckling and tilting sideways, had to be demolished.
The developer, who had earlier purchased the building, asked for emergency permission to raze the townhouse, saying it could not be stabilized or rehabilitated.
Permission was granted, and many people were furious.
The city was losing a beautiful Civil War-era building that was fully functional – renters lived in the three-story townhouse until March 2021, when cracks appeared in the bricks, ceiling plaster began falling and terrified tenants were vacated.
The damage to the building had been visible for months before city housing and preservation officials got involved.
At a September 14, 2021 meeting of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), a housing official was asked if there would be any consequences for the developer, Landmark Partners.
Civil penalties would most likely be assessed, Eric Uttenreither, assistant commissioner for building and demolition, answered.
CHAP ordered the housing department to make a full report about what happened.
“Within the scope”
Since then, this website has been asking periodically about the promised penalties and the report. We asked again after The Brew won a Best of Show award for its articles on the debacle – “In Mount Vernon, a historic preservation fiasco.”
Finally, eight months after the CHAP hearing, the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has issued a two-sentence answer:
“It’s my understanding that the contractors were working within the scope of their permits, so there would be no penalties or citations in that regard,” spokeswoman Tammy D. Hawley said via email. “Code Enforcement has not yet submitted a close-out report to Planning.”
UPDATE: Hawley emailed The Brew today after publication to correct her earlier statement:
“I should have said ‘Construction and Demolition has not yet submitted a close-out report.’ That’s who the matter rests with under our Permits and Litigation division, not Code Enforcement,” Hawley said. “My misspeak.”
Today the sheer, glassy back wall of “City House Charles” looms over the vacant lot where 4 East Eager once stood. The area is fenced off as workers continue to build the eight-story office tower with planned ground-floor restaurants at Eager and Charles streets.
Proposals to incorporate tall modern buildings into smaller, historic structures in midtown and waterfront Baltimore have increased in recent years, generating controversy.
An additional concern arose from the 4 East Eager Street fiasco – the potential damage from new construction permitted close by an adjacent structure.
“This kind of project in an urban environment is done all the time,” CHAP commissioner Anath Ranon pointed out at the September hearing. “It’s not a given that the one next door is going to collapse.”
Next to the empty lot is another historic building, the Marburg Mansion, where Landmark Partners has its headquarters.
Last week, a few stray bricks from 4 East Eager Street could be seen still attached to the building.
“Nothing reported to us”
The Brew’s reporting provided some background on Landmark, founded by Jonathon Pannoni and George E. Watson IV.
The novice developers were contributors to the campaign committees of then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Mt. Vernon’s two councilmen, Robert Stokes and Eric Costello. In late 2019, they held a fundraiser for Costello, while directly donating $1,400 to his reelection campaign through various entities.
The stories also indicated that Uttenreither had mischaracterized HCD’s knowledge of the damaged building.
Uttenreither said the department was unaware of any structural damage until Landmark Partners contacted the agency a few days before the September CHAP meeting.
“There was nothing reported to us that it happened,” he testified.
In fact, on April 21 – or five months earlier – the department had received a citizen complaint about a “building in a state of collapse.”
Documents obtained by The Brew showed that an HCD inspector had visited the site and, talking to the project manager, learned about “failures in the shoring/bracing.” But the inspector took no action and closed out the complaint the same day.
The Brew’s reporting also showed how little accountability or transparency occurs when “contractors working within the scope of their permits” destroy a building supposedly protected in a historic area.
Should Landmark be required to construct a replica of what was destroyed, as a developer in London was required to do after he illegally demolished a 100-year-old pub?
Some have suggested that extreme consequence.
Others called for at least the building’s facade to be saved. A few wanted the company to be banned from future development in the city.
CHAP commissioners asked the developer why, if the cracking and shifting was serious enough to require evacuation of the building, did work proceed on the adjacent property?
“Why wasn’t there a more aggressive approach to stabilizing the building?” Commissioner Ranon asked.
“Somebody’s culpable,” CHAP’s then-chairman Tom Liebel declared.
With HCD now apparently done with the matter, who that somebody is remains unclear.