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Court of Appeals rules against preservationists’ bid to protect Superblock buildings

Neighboring business owners and preservationists have lost their bid to protect historic buildings in Baltimore’s Superblock redevelopment area.

The Court of Appeals said Friday that the group cannot sue to enforce an agreement between the city and the Maryland Historical Trust.

The 4-3 ruling centered on a memorandum of agreement signed by the city and the trust over the $150 million development on the city’s West Side that set forth approval to demolish 14 of 17 historic buildings at the site to make way for new construction.

That development agreement had been endorsed by J. Rodney Little, director of the trust, in December 2010 when he gave his approval to the project.

Opponents of the plan under the name 120 West Fayette, led by attorney Peter G. Angelos, filed suit in April 2011 seeking to stop the project because they said the MOA violated an existing agreement for historic preservation downtown. They were joined in court by Preservation Maryland, Baltimore Heritage and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In a September 2011 ruling, the Baltimore City Circuit Court upheld the MOA, saying the city and the trust’s agreement did not include the local preservation groups.

A majority of the Court of Appeals agreed.

“The [Maryland Historical] Trust ultimately chose not to take any legal action in connection with this matter,” the majority opinion said. “Whether 120 West Fayette is satisfied with the consequences of that decision is immaterial, because 120 West Fayette’s satisfaction was not contemplated by the private agreement memorialized in the MOA.

“We hold that 120 West Fayette, at best an incidental beneficiary to the MOA, may not file a suit requesting declaratory judgment that interprets and enforces an agreement to which it has no part. The Circuit Court did not err in dismissing the complaint.”

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell wrote a strong dissent, saying, “…the appellant has taxpayer standing, as it alleges a violation of state law by the city and the Maryland Historical Trust through its alleged approval of a land use project.

“Additionally, the memorandum of agreement is a contract so inextricably bound with the land uses to be developed that it creates land use standing and cannot be considered a purely private contract.”

M. Albert Figinski, the attorney for the preservationists who argued before the court in early January, said he was disappointed.

“I think that the dissent was absolutely correct,” said Figinski, who works in Angelos’ law office. “Unfortunately, it didn’t carry the day. It’s like the little boy that stubbed his toe in the dark; it hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry.”

Ronald Kreitner, executive director of the nonprofit WestSide Renaissance Inc., said Friday he was surprised by the ruling.

“I am not sure,” Kreitner said, about the future of the Superblock development, now in the planning and design phase and subject of a request to the Baltimore City Council last week for $17.6 million in taxpayer incentives to the developer, Lexington Square Partners LLC.

“For now, it means that any of the historic buildings there are at risk,” he said. “The whole area was declared a historic district in 2000.”

Much of the existing real estate contained in the area that would become the Superblock is decayed after years of neglect while city officials and developers have wrangled over the project.

Last week, the city’s Board of Estimates granted Lexington Square Partners an eight-month extension to complete design and financing plans for the Superblock. The developers told city officials they have hired a local broker, KLNB, to market and lease retail space in the development and are “close” to signing an anchor tenant, which they would not identify.

Plans call for the Superblock to hold 217,444 square feet of retail space, a 296-unit apartment tower and a 650-space parking garage.

The Baltimore Development Corp. and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake are pushing for city approval for a payment in lieu of taxes agreement with the developers that would negate payment of property taxes at the site for 20 years.

The deal would grant a 95 percent property tax break for 15 years, and other property tax breaks for the final five years of the agreement under a sliding scale.

Developers would also be eligible for enterprise zone tax credits for the project.

Rawlings-Blake said Friday’s decision will help move the stalled Superblock development forward.

“We are pleased with the decision by the Court of Appeals to dismiss the lawsuit that has delayed progress in the city’s redevelopment of the west side,” the mayor said in a statement. “The Lexington Square redevelopment is going to help transform that neighborhood and strengthen the surrounding area.”