Wednesday, April 11, 2018

How to sway a City Commission

Mount Vernon was all about historic preservation and height limits - until this guy came along: Dennis Richter, resident of the neighborhood, property owner, rehabilitator of various historic properties, soft-spoken and well-reasoned, trusted by the community, someone about whom a neighbor says: "He gives us the best he can". That Richter changed Mount Vernon's narrative would be an understatement, and he will change the community's physical being as well. How is the subject of this article.
Existing historic buildings
The CHAP Mission is to enhance and promote the culture and economy of Baltimore through the preservation of buildings, structures, sites and neighborhoods, that have aesthetic, historic and architectural value.CHAP goals include preserving historic architecture and monuments; reclaiming broken neighborhoods; preventing demolition by neglect; and integrating our City's past into its future. (From the CHAP website)
After initially confirming the historic significance of the current building ensemble, CHAP proceeded in November 2017 to give the developer a economic hardship permission to demolish the historic block which includes Eddies in Mount Vernon. The vote was 9:2. The rules for permitting demolition based on "substantial hardship" are set forth in the CHAP regulations and they are stringent:
From CHAP Rules and Regulations
Proposed development (Ziger Snead presentation, screenshot)

“This was a big hurdle,” developer Dennis Richter told the Baltimore Brew after the meeting. “We’re very fortunate in being able to move forward.” With the hardship ruling the Commission had given away its biggest chip. But CHAP had a say one more time, since the regulations require that it has to also review the design of the proposed new structure.

This Tuesday the commission convened again for this purpose. After having taken the significant first hurdle, one could imagine that the architect and developer would show up with a design that would follow all the rules laid out in great detail in the Mount Vernon Historic District Design Guidelines for New Construction and not try their luck once more.  Again the hurdles are not insignificant. "The Mount Vernon Historic District Design Guidelines must be used for all new construction located within the historic district", the guidelines mandate.

But one could also imagine that the team was emboldened by its initial success and would just continue to push the envelope to see how gullible the historic commission really is. The team seems to have taken that second route when they presented a building that is taller than the guidelines permit.
Proposed project as seen from northwest along Cathedral Street
Having bulldozed the preservation mission of the Commission with the argument that the old buildings wouldn't allow any reasonable development and certainly not one that would be "catalytic" in Mount Vernon, the developer, his architect and a who is who of Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district put their guns into position once again, this time to fire their way towards approval of a building that exceeds the applicable height by 16% or more than an entire floor, even though the guidelines state "One of the most important aspects of new construction is its height" and lists "Designing New Construction that exceeds the maximum height limits" under "Prohibited". Because of this CHAP's staff recommended for the project "disapproval".  The fact that the project was 116' high in a 100' zone with some equipment being possibly even taller and that the Mount Vernon Design Guidelines were adopted into zoning limit buildings to 100' in the area where the project is proposed triggered staff's "speed camera", they didn't have any other option. There is no leeway in the matter.
Architect Steve Ziger during his presentation

The staffer Caitlin Audette went through the lengthy history of the vehement height battle which the Mount Vernon community had fought for years and which ultimately led to those limitations established in the Guidelines, the Urban Renewal Plan and the new zoning law.

"Exceeding of height limits is prohibited", Audette explained, especially after a 20' height bonus that had been once optional under an 80' limit was in effect had been rolled into a height limit without exceptions or a bonus.

What unfolded after the staff presentation was a spectacle of a special kind and one that brought about the admiration of Commissioner and former UMB law professor Larry Gibson.
I taught appellate argument, it was very impressive how Mr Ziger and Mr Richter argued the case as “de minimis” (Commissioner Larry Gibson)
So what did the presenters do to elicit such praise from the admired lawyer and civil rights advocate?
First, Dennis Richter, the developer, reported that he had held no less than five public community meetings, conducted a field trip to Washington and emphasized how much he responded to community desires since developing his initial designs. As a result, he casually noted that, with the community amenity spaces included in the project, it just got a bit taller. "Yes", Richter responded in his best German accent upon a question form the Commission, "I could build it lower, but then the numbers wouldn't work", at least not "without cheapening the design", especially the expensive facades without which "Mount Vernon wouldn't get what it deserves".
Diagram of the height limits in Mt Vernon

Thusly primed, the next volley against "disapproval" came from Richter's architect. Importantly, this isn't just any architect but Baltimore's most eminent designer Steve Ziger who is most known for his modernist buildings including MICA's Brown Center and the grey zinc panel box at Baltimore's Historical Society in Mount Vernon. Ziger is also an immediate neighbor to the project site with an office on Morton Street. Ziger calmly but eloquently presented a series of slides.

First he agreed with the staff reviewer by confirming that he very much likes "the idea of the rising bowl" (the height limits of the Design Guidelines that step up with the distance from the Washington Monument), a concept he called "valid". He then proceeded to show maps, height diagrams and photos of all the tall buildings in the district constructed before the guidelines and which were "grandfathered". "We cherish them", Ziger said, "because they were well done", subtly putting his design into the league of  buildings like the Belvedere. Like those precedents, he pointed out, his building has a base, a middle and a top, a point CHAP's staff reviewer had already observed.

Ziger explained that his project's 116' height was driven by the elevator, really, because "we didn't want to break the cornice line of the roof."  He than promised "116’ is a hard line, we commit to that", as if 116' was , indeed, the mandatory height limit and not 100'." He repeated how precious the facade materials were, how much depth the new facade would have, how light and shadow would liven it up and how most of the year the 116' building would never cast a shadow on the City Cafe across the street. The fact that "we are right adjacent to the 140’ zone makes a 16’ excess height a minor issue" he concluded coolly, adding: "So we are comfortable" (with what we propose).

Some in the commission, notably chair Tom Liebel, an architect who had voted against the hardship approval, were visibly less comfortable and still fretted about the precedent such a height violation would set. That is when the applicants unleashed their third salvo, a phalanx of the most venerable citizens of Mount Vernon, all testifying in favor of Dennis Richter's character as much as for the project.
Commission Chair, Tom Liebel

First in line was Steve Shen, a local homeowner and volunteer of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, where he chairs its Architectural Review Committee. "Great project, quality design" he said. Then he went into treacherous territory:" What precedent does this set? Each project needs to be evaluated on its own merit", a position in obvious conflict of the long-held position of his association that there need to be rules and predictability, so that not each developer could curry  favor with the powers to be. "The height battle was fought in broad strokes," Shen continued, "we don't want to be like DC where each building looks like cut down with a hedge trimmer", he elaborated and added "context is key. There should be leniency at corner lots and transition areas", repeating Ziger's "de minimis" argument.

It was Charlie Duff of Jubilee Baltimore, "an authority on Baltimore’s architecture and development" and "frequent lecturer on architectural history" (Jubilee website) who as an always great orator provided the crescendo in words which caused architect Ziger to be "moved to tears" as he confessed to Duff after the meeting.

"I was part of the height fight" Duff admitted in his testimony, but height "is not murder, its zoning" he intoned giving the "minimis" yet another twist. "Dennis Richter and his development are doing us a favor" he proclaimed, "they are building a building that is better designed than any building in Baltimore in this millennium. It is doing a favor for the people of Baltimore." Then he paused for emphasis, turned to the CHAP chair, looked him in the eyes and ended with all the gravitas he is so apt to muster:  "To CHAP I say,  it is your opportunity to recognize a remarkable building”.

Commissioner Bob Embry after asking some quite pertinent question regarding the legal standing of the height limits but then offered a quote from the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a small mind", thus giving the Commission a literary out of their conundrum. After that the deliberation of the CHAP commissioners was mostly jovial banter.
View along Cathedral Street

The Commission unanimously approved the design including its height violation. The developer needs to go to the City's zoning board next to get a waiver on insufficient parking and the height. It is easy to see how that board will be swayed.

Should the Historic Commission have voted otherwise? Certainly the project is well designed, certainly it is in the transition to the adjacent height zone of 140' and certainly a $35 million 126 unit building with a large grocery store or food hall will have a bigger economic impact than a refurbished collection of historic buildings housing an Eddies mini-mart. Certainly a tenth floor adds to the economic viability and more units may, indeed, offset expenses on the facade.

The demolition approval due to hardship already skirted hard on the edge of compliance with the three standards set in CHAP's regulations. Dispensing of the height regulations is not within the purview of the historic commission and sets an awful precedent.

The argument that bigger is better because of higher economic viability would be true for any project in any historic district, well designed or not. Applying this logic to a historic district would mean the end of historic preservation, plain and simple. Liking the architect and the developer shouldn't be enough to disregard the rules, no matter that transcendentalist Emerson also said "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall." Immanual Kant and his categorical imperative would be a better guide, essentially postulating that an ethical decision must be scalable.  And as far as law: Consistency is the great hallmark of a society which submits to the rule of law.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

A streaming video of the session can be found here

See previous articles about the project on this blog:

Misunderstanding historic preservation
Tearing down Eddies in Mt Vernon?


  1. Very thorough accounting of the process, thank you!

  2. Excellent article. Commissioners can be easily swayed with smooth verbal wordsmithing and sometimes bullying. They seemed to forget their own mission.

  3. I couldn't agree with your concluding points more.

    1. It must be noted that Shawn Soviak was one of only two who spoke in opposition to the project and made the pertinent observation that "It is interesting to hear the Golds and Littmanns (property owners of nearby surface parking lots which have been an eyesore for decades) testify that this project will be a catalyst when they had the opportunity to develop their lots all along." I would add that these property owners are likely to come forward now with an attempt to weaken the height limitations further after others laid the groundwork for them.