Needed: One David

Carolyn M. Donkervoet

November 10, 1990|By Carolyn M. Donkervoet

JUST ABOUT six years ago then-Mayor Schaefer shared the rostrum at the Convention Center with James W. Rouse to greet several thousands of preservationists who had come to Baltimore for the annual meeting of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Baltimore's greats and near-greats basked in the thunderous applause which followed a lengthy recital of our city's preservation accomplishments. And what other American city was then more worthy of such accolades?

Baltimore had it all in the early '80s: eminently successful tax-act projects (the Garrett Building, old Southern High School); historic districts (Mount Vernon, Federal Hill); perfect ''sweat-equity'' neighborhoods (Otterbein, Union Square); a Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation which, when established in 1964, was a model for other historic commissions, and countless magnificently restored 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces of American architecture (Mount Clare, the Basilica of the Assumption, Fell's Point's Robert Long House). The architectural riches were so abundant that 18 tours were required to include what Baltimore had to show!

These jewels are all still around us in our ''city of domes and spires.'' But preservation certainly hasn't been faring well in Baltimore in the last six years. Today we might better be described as the city where ''the walls came a-tumblin' down.'' Should we have had greater prescience in 1984 in spotting the trend away from preservation? Should we have then foreseen the changes in skyline and streetscape and shoreline that the wrecking ball and implosion detonator would soon impose upon our city? And if we had been able to see into the future, what could we have done? What can we really do now?

Preservationists seem to have little positive effect these days, as preservation issues are often overridden by more powerful forces. Now that investment tax credits and accelerated-depreciation benefits have been reduced by the tax-law revisions of 1986, they no longer provide an economic edge for adaptive re-use projects; retaining old buildings just doesn't pay enough any more.

In addition, as America rediscovered the lure of her waterways in the past decade, so did Baltimore. Unfortunately, the waterfront is where Baltimore's early settlement occurred and where the inventory of 18th- and 19th-century historic buildings is greatest. These buildings are no match for today's market-driven projects, and so we lose many of them.

Furthermore, there is the weighty factor of tax-base development. Most of the large projects along the waterfront hold the promise of providing huge sums of money in taxes, and Baltimore needs to generate more tax dollars. How then can a row of early Federal houses, each only about a thousand square feet and valued at barely over five figures, ever survive a contest with a multi-million-dollar proposal with the potential of seven-figure annual taxes? The resultant David and Goliath struggles are most often won these days by the Goliaths.

One of the reasons may be that there isn't much neutral ground for the so-called adversaries to stand upon. Preservationists plead their cause before agency after agency as development projects come on line for review. But few of those agencies can give preservation issues top priority, and none is either commissioned or empowered to provide protection for historic resources city-wide. Even Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation lacks authority outside its own city-designated historic districts and landmark list.

Perhaps it is time for preservationists to demand a support agency, or a small department, or even just one person in the administration whose specific job it is to give preservation some parity. We need people within our city government to serve as advocates for preservation, people who can assess historic value realistically and accurately, who are unhindered by development or political pressures and who can help us treat our architectural and historical legacy with intelligence and respect.

Maybe the National Trust will never come back to Baltimore. But we're all still here, and it's our heritage we're trying to preserve and protect. Let's insist on some genuine preservation and representation and participation in the urban planning decisions of this decade.

*The writer is executive director of the Society for Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point.

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