Speaking before the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association last night, Andy Frank tried to steer discussion away from the toxic topic of trees: specifically, the trees near the Washington Monument that the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy has said must be removed for them to complete a multi-million-dollar upgrade.
Nevertheless tree-cutting – and some even hotter hot-button imagery – persisted, as speakers critiqued the document before them: the terms of the public-private partnership formalizing the conservancy’s relationship with the city.
“It is absurd that we are sitting here discussing something that shouldn’t even be – a legal promise to give control of something that ought to be a government function to a private entity,” said Kim Forsyth, of Reservoir Hill, addressing Frank, the board member speaking for the conservancy.
“That’s how you get a monstrosity in front of Penn Station,” she said, referring to the widely-reviled 51-foot tall aluminum Male/Female statue in front of the city’s century-old Beaux Arts train station, gifted to the city by a private arts group. “It’s evidence of bad management.”
Addressing an audience of about 70 people, supporters of the conservancy were just as fiery in their defense of the group’s plan to restore the monument and renovate balustrades, sidewalks and park-space.
“It has been treated as the junkyard, as Baltimore City’s fairground,” said Martin Perschler, an architectural historian.
He called the conservancy’s plan for Mount Vernon Place “probably the smartest investment of my [tax] dollars that I’ve seen in a while.”
Public Dollars, Private Dollars
Frank explained that decision-making on the tree issue rests with the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).
Frank, special adviser to the president of Johns Hopkins University and former deputy mayor, focused his remarks on the recently-released “restoration agreement,” which he said is “not unique.”
He offered examples including the Edgar Allan Poe and H. L. Mencken houses and the Shot Tower, which is operated by a private organization.
Frank said the conservancy has raised $5 million so far toward its $12 million goal. Pressed to break that down he said the figure includes the $1 million bond issue city voters approved last year, $1.5 million “pledged privately,” and the rest would be a combination of city, state and foundation funding.
The meetings held by the conservancy, which was created in 2009, have so far been private but Frank said they may open them to the public: “it has not been determined yet.”
“It is a self-nominating board but we do allow for non-members to serve on committees,” he said, urging the crowd to consider participating. “I hope that we can build trust,” he said, toward the end of his remarks.
That goal appears to be a long way off, judging from the comments from many speakers.
“I have severe questions about the trees, the scale of the development and the architectural and historical questions associated with this agreement,” said Mount Vernon Place resident Tom Spence. “I’m suspicious of a bunch of people who are going to ram through what they want.”