Monday, October 9, 2017

Tearing down Eddies in Mt Vernon?

A demolition notice pinned to the buildings 7-11 West Eager Street strikes the hearts of Mount Vernon residents for a number of reasons. Mostly because what once were four individual attached houses is now the only supermarket in the area housing Eddie's of Eager Street, a family owned and operated store which served Baltimore for over 50 years and is only one of three that remains of the 26 Eddie's markets which were once a loosely organized purchase co-op inside the Beltway. All three Eddies have different owners today. Like many older urban supermarkets, Eddie's doesn't get only praise from local residents, but it is a beloved Baltimore institution, nevertheless. Authentic one might say.
7-11, 13/15 West Eager: All to be demolished?
The application for demolition will be heard by the city's historic commission CHAP Tuesday 10/10 at 1pm. (For a report on the CHAP hearing go here). Researching the back-story yields a number of delicious details which reveal a in many ways typical Baltimore story, i.e. a story with many cross connections. To start with the issue of

Eddie's utility as a food store in Mount Vernon:

Mallory has this to say on Yelp:
I've been going to Eddie's for awhile and while the prices are a little steeper than your typical grocery store, the proximity for those last minute provisions is tough to overvalue. Like many reviewers, I would recommend using them for your weekly grocery runs, but their wine and beer selection is solid and they typically have those random items that you never think of but always need. 
Greg on the same review page see it this way:
Add caption
Eddie's can be a life-saver when you live in Mount Vernon. The selection is a little too limited to do all your shopping at once, but they have lots of cooking and cleaning essentials, a reasonable selection of beer and wine at good prices, as well as some local treats. (Brain: do you really need both Berger cookies and Taharka Bros ice cream? Stomach: shut up, brain.) I've always found the employees to be super friendly and knowledgable about whether they have certain items and where they are if so. It's a great little store, so I'm hoping they don't lose many customers to the CVS that recently opened in the old Club Hippo space. It would be a shame to not have them right around the corner anymore.
Cameron writes on the Baltimore City Voters Facebook page:
A lot of people in Mount Vernon are car-free. It’s already hard enough to get groceries. This is awful!
Those comments pretty much sum it up.
Right behind the fear of becoming a food desert looms the fear of gentrification. Cynthia on the City Voters page grouses:
Let me guess... Mt. Vernon will get a Harris Teeter, DSW, Mission BBQ, Floyds, and a Chic Fil A, just like every other new development in this area. How is that "variety" or change for the better? It's cookie cutter drab, for the unimaginative who murder small businesses. Sad.
After the conversion of the Hippo into a CVS the suspicion against national brands taking over local culture isn't entirely off the mark.

Eddie's as a contributing historic structure

Then there is the concern about demolishing historic structures in a historic district. Those are also well represented on the Facebook group page, for example when Rebecca asks:
Can't they bring in better retail options but keep the historic buildings and character of the neighborhood? Why do they have to bulldoze? 
So what is going on? Mount Vernon is a well established historic district. It has a well organized community association, the Mount Vernon, Belvedere Association (MVBA) with a zoning, development and architectural review committee.

All those experts participated in 2005/6 in a fight about height limits in Mount Vernon, a battle with the planning department whether CHAP should be placed inside the Planning Department and the resulting Urban Renewal Ordinance for Mt Vernon that includes a list of non-contributing buildings to make the development process more predictable. (All buildings not on the list were considered "contributing" under historic preservation definitions. For the list click the above link and look under Appendix). All participants at the time (including Baltimore Heritage and MVBA) thought this would settle the debate about what buildings in the district are "contributing" and makes the matter more transparent for developers and residents.

15 West Eager Street in 1958 (Report)
How easy can it be to tear old buildings from 1860 down that are clearly not on the list of the non-contributing structures and properties? The CHAP hearing should be a slam dunk for preservation. Not so fast. For understanding how it could be otherwise a few additional details need to be understood.

For one, the applicant, developer Dennis Richter lives in historic Mount Vernon himself, right next to the famous Engineers Club, the former estate of the B&O founder's wife. Richter understands historic preservation well, he also rehabbed 12 W. Madison Street, another historic building in the area which houses the National Heritage Area. Richter commissioned a report about the historic value of the four historic structures which now form Eddies from Jason Vaughn who works at the National Heritage Area. The report examines the history of 13-15 West Eager Street, 917 Cathedral Street and 917 Cathedral Street and 7-11 West Eager Street as well as 915 Cathedral Street, "the former home of a distinguished professor and physicist".
15 West Eager 2017

The report notes that "the property today known as 7-11 West Eager dates to between 1851 and 1867". That is pretty old even by Baltimore standards. The report continues to show the successive uses over time:
Sometime between 1890 and 1898, the livery business and its associated property were sold to the Standard Coupe Company, which advertised as a “Livery and Hiring Stables” at the address of 7, 9 and 11 West Eager Street. By 1904, the livery was operating as Stewart’s Uptown Stables. By 1914,
Stewart’s was billed as a taxi service, offering automobile service as well as horse-drawn carriages and hansoms. The Sanborn map of 1914 notes the building as a garage with a repair shop. The 1923 city business directory lists the
property as the Staley Garage with William B. Staley serving as the company’s president. From 1928 through 1938, the building housed the Vernon Garage. 
Around 1939 or 1940 the garage was remodeled into a grocery store.
The professional and unbiased report does not make a recommendation regarding demolition or preservation, it just present the historic facts.
Aerial showing the block from the rear as well as the surface parking
lots to the south and north

Another interesting detail is that developer Dennis Richter's wife, Michele Richter, is the President of the MVBA. Monday when the MBVA assembled all its committees to debate the suggested demolition, Ms Richter was present when her husband Dennis presented his proposed project but abstained from a vote, according to the chair of the development and architectural review committees, Steve Shen. We will get back to the vote.

What is proposed?

The proposed development uses the stepped height limits of the Urban Renewal plan and provides for a large scale mixed use project that extends all the way from Morton Street to Cathedral Street and would demolish the former Comprehensive Car Care building across from City Cafe as well (a non contributing structure per the list). The proposed development would include first floor "food related retail". Dennis Richter has offered Dennis Zorn, the owner of Eddie's a "first right of refusal" to become a tenant in the new structure and even offered to assist in finding a temporary accommodation during construction. According to Steve Shen, "Zorn is all for the project". An employee standing in front of Eddie's this morning was less sanguine. He guessed one would see here "just another surface parking lot".
The lots in question on an area plat plan (south is up)

The MBVA considers the proposed project "as a catalyst" for developing the surface parking lots immediately to the south and the north of it which the Mount Vernon masterplan of 2011 identified as development targets. Properties, of course, where the project would not have to demolish and buildings, properties which Richter reportedly tried to buy but didn't get.

So how did the MBVA ultimately vote on the project? Unanimously for it. How is this supposed to go through CHAP and the famous list? Dennis Chen knows how: "Decommission" the structures from the list of contributing buildings. A precedent is right around the corner at 912-928 Cathedral Street, lots and buildings that were taken off the list by CHAP in 2014. As for the fear that after demolition one would see here yet another parking lot, Chen stressed that approval would come "with the condition that demolition cannot begin before all permits and funding for the project" would have to be in place.

One can expect a lively debate at tomorrow's public CHAP Hearing.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

CHAP agenda

update: The CHAP Commission voted 5:3 to uphold the buildings' status as "contributing" and therefore denied the demolition application. However, likely this won't be the last hearing. The developer can request a hearing level 2 in which hardship and economic development arguments will be considered as well.

For a report on the CHAP hearing go here

Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association (website)
Established in 1938, the Mount Vernon~Belvedere Association (MVBA) takes its neighborhood seriously. We aim to preserve and restore our neighborhood.  In addition, the association works hard to disseminate information to our residents and businesses about issues that affect our neighborhood, and to inform our visitors of the many exciting activities that take place right here!

My lecture about the future of Baltimore will take place as part of AIA's Architecture Month on October 18 at 6pm at the MICAH Lazarus Center on 131 West North Ave. My book "Baltimore, Reinventing an American Legacy City" will be available for purchase. 
The event is free but you need to register here 

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