By preserving buildings, you help save the city

Q & A

November 10, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Preserving historic landmarks can be a challenge in good times and bad. When the real estate market is strong, developers often want to tear down old buildings to make way for larger new ones. When the market is weak, few people seem to have money to do much of anything.

No one is more familiar with Baltimore's preservation than Deborah Goodman, a businesswoman who has served on the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) for the past eight years, the last five as chairman.

The 11-member citizens' panel reviews and approves changes to more than 100 individually listed city landmarks and thousands of other buildings within the city's 17 historic districts.

A Mount Vernon resident who heads the design firm of Deborah Goodman Interiors and is fiercely pro-Baltimore, Ms. Goodman is stepping down from CHAP after serving two four-year terms, the legal limit.

QUESTION: What is the biggest obstacle to preservation in Baltimore?

ANSWER: Keeping people from moving out of the city. I lie awake worrying about that. We've got to keep people interested in the city, because we have a lot of vacant houses, and if nobody buys them and moves into them, we end up with demolition by neglect.

Q.: How has the preservation movement changed during the time you have been on the commission?

A.: There are two ways to look at it. In some ways, it has become more mainstream, something that people really know about. There are more historic districts. Residents are more active. The commission is better known.

If there has been another change, it might be that there was such a rush to live in historic districts eight years ago, and I think because of the federal funding cuts and the reduction in tax credits for historic preservation, we have not seen as big of a rush to move to historic districts recently.

Q.: Are you saying fewer people are moving to historic districts because of the recession and shortage of federal funding assistance?

A.: I think to some degree. I don't like to say that is a fact, because I don't have all the facts. There has been a movement to the suburbs, to some degree, and I'm sorry that is happening.

But there's also been a reduction in the amount of federal tax credits available for people interested in moving to historic districts, and that has hurt by reducing the number of people who might have otherwise been interested.

Q.: What about the pace of restoration and renovation work by private-sector developers?

We are seeing very little activity because of the general downturn in development and building.

Q.: Have the best of Baltimore's historic buildings been restored or are there still a lot that need protection?

A.: There are still buildings not listed as landmarks that need protection.

Q.: What is the city doing about that?

A.: As part of the mayor's 20-year strategy for guiding downtown development, we have formed a task force to survey the buildings downtown and come up with some kind of ranking system that will determine how they should be treated.

There are four proposed categories:

First, those buildings that are of utmost significance, which we never want to see disturbed.

Second, those for which there could be a more flexible approach, buildings that are important and worth saving, but which could have some recycling.

Third, buildings that are marginal, contributing buildings -- not of great historical significance but that as a part of the whole would contribute to the area.

And fourth, others that are not significant.

CAll of this is being put into place now. We just received a $15,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, and we will be seeing the results within the next few months.

Q.: Will modern buildings be surveyed, too?

A.: We'll have to take a careful look at that. Yesterday's aliens have a way of becoming tomorrow's icons.

There are many buildings that may not be considered significant today, but in another 25 or 50 years they may be.

Q.: Besides the ranking system, what can be done to save the many older buildings that are vacant or under-used today?

A.: It needs a great effort, a joint effort. Not just on the part of preservationists, but on the part of the business community, the real estate community, the development community and the government to address the need to save these buildings for the future.

Q.: Multi-culturalism -- the growing involvement of various ethnigroups -- has been a nationwide trend in preservation. Is that happening here, as well?

A.: There has been a surge of interest on the part of the black community in preserving areas such as the Madison-Park historic district.

Not only are the residents interested in preserving their communities, but they become very insightful, very knowledgeable, delving into the history of the area.

There's a great curiosity to find out where people fit. And they're finding out that the black community was very viable here in Baltimore, very much a contributing community.

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