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Inside City Hall: What’s behind today’s showdown at preservation panel

Effort to oust Kathleen Kotarba comes 13 days after downtown developers were thwarted in their effort to immediately demolish the Mechanic Theater.

Above: Mechanic Theater was opened in 1967 to add some spice to the bland skyscrapers populating Charles Center.

The game plan called for a swift, surgical move that would never leak to the press.

Saying that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wanted “a change of direction,” Tom Stosur, head of the planning department, asked Kathleen Kotarba to quietly retire or resign as longtime director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), according to three persons knowledgeable of the conversation.

Kotarba refused, and last week CHAP commissioners were asked to attend a “special session” at 1 p.m. today at City Hall to conduct a closed hearing on “personnel matters.” Last Thursday, The Brew broke the story that the meeting involved the planned firing of Kotarba.

Today’s showdown comes 13 days after CHAP infuriated a group of downtown developers by refusing to allow the immediate demolition of the Mechanic Theater, a “special list” historic property.

The tear-down was demanded by Howard Brown and other representatives of David S. Brown Enterprises and the Greenwald family that owns Arrow Parking, which operates the building’s underground garage. They were supported by such local luminaries as Kirby Fowler, Jr., director of Downtown Partnership; Scott Dagenais, regional president of M&T Bank; and City Councilman William H. Cole IV.

The Brown group had planned to preserve the theater building and build a highrise above it, when it was discovered that the Mechanic had “structural issues and the past renewal plan had to be abandoned.” attorney Stanley A. Fine told the commission.

Cautious Approach

As typical of a panel known for its cautious approach, CHAP did not reject the developers’ request.

Instead, it voted to table a motion that demolition would “harm” the landmark status of the Mechanic for its next meeting in September. Under the panel’s long-established rules, it has six months to decide on whether to approve a demolition permit on a historic structure.

“The mayor blames Kathleen for what the commission did,” said one insider, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. The person noted that “more than a year ago,” Stosur had warned the panel that the mayor wanted swift action on development initiatives.

Ex-CHAP commissioner Helena Hicks confirmed that on January 22, 2011, at a “retreat” held by CHAP at Miller’s Court in North Baltimore, Stosur appeared before the group.

Hicks paraphrased Stosur as saying, “The mayor said to tell you if we could not follow her wishes where preservation buildings were concerned, she would replace us.”

(Stosur has been unavailable for comment since releasing a statement to The Brew last Thursday that his office was “fully committed to promoting and supporting historic preservation in Baltimore in a responsible way.”)

The January 2011 meeting came shortly before CHAP was required to review plans by the developers of the “Superblock” on Baltimore’s westside business district. Again, the panel took the “middle” path, giving the developers, Lexington Square Partners and Atlanta-based Dawson Co., another year to finalize their plans without interference by restrictive designations on several historic buildings.

Four Commissioners Replaced

Still, the panel’s vote on the Superblock was considered an affront to the mayor’s well-publicized effort to rid the project of preservation issues, in particular the simmering controversy over designating Read’s Drug Store as a historic civil rights site.

Hicks was the most outspoken critic of the decision to keep only the outer facade of the Read’s store intact, with the rest of the building slated to be gutted and rebuilt into a large “footprint” for a national retail outlet.

Hicks was also one of four CHAP commissioners that Rawlings-Blake replaced last spring because, Hicks said, “we aren’t considered blind loyalists.”

The other three members whose new terms at CHAP were not renewed were David Gleason, Donald Kann and Eva Higgins. Both Gleason and Higgins told The Brew last May that they were surprised that they were not renominated.

Gleason, an architect who had been on the panel for six years, said, “The members who were not renominated would have liked to have stayed on to continue the work they started years ago. The commission had reached a stage where everyone had a number of talents and comments to make.”

Kann could not be reached for comment.

The four new members of CHAP, who were sworn in earlier this month, are Aaron Bryant, an art museum curator at Morgan State University; Cindy Conklin, a realtor; James French, a developer; and Matthew Mosca, a historic painting consultant.

These members – along with movie theater owner James “Buzz” Cusack, Abell Foundation President Robert Embry, law professor Larry Gibson, architect Thomas A. Liebel, Deputy City Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman and City Councilman Bill Henry – may well hold the key to whether Kotarba retains her position.

Preservationists have vowed to back the embattled director.

In an email to members last week, Johns Hopkins, director of Baltimore Heritage, said, “Preservation issues are at the forefront of many city-shaping decisions today and we fear that the effort to fire Ms. Kotarba is an attempt to reduce the influence of historic preservation in Baltimore. . . It is only with a strong and professional preservation staff and commission that checks and balances within city government are possible.”

Attempts to ask Mayor Rawlings-Blake this morning about the CHAP controversy during her public appearance at the Leith Walk Elementary School were unsuccessful.

– Laura Flynn contributed to this story.

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