Sidewalk divides Annapolis

November 22, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

It is a fight over about 500 feet of additional concrete on a street that stretches a little more than two blocks. But Annapolis residents and business owners see that part of the $5 million plan to spruce up Main Street as a battle for the soul of the city.

So intense is the struggle that the mayor recently had his office draft a bill that would permit him to fire members of the city's Historic District Commission. At a meeting this month, he repeatedly gaveled to order an unruly crowd that booed, hissed and shouted at City Council members. One alderman called the crowd rude.

"There's a lot more at stake than people realize," said Thomas McCarthy Jr., a lawyer whose office is at the foot of Main Street. "What's at stake is the very heart of Annapolis."

At issue is a plan to bury overhead utility lines, plant trees, add benches, widen the sidewalks and cover the 300-year-old street with new, red bricks from the City Dock to Church Circle.

It is the plan to widen the sidewalks that has set off the fireworks.

Historic preservationists and downtown residents argue that if the sidewalks are widened, the street will become a sprawling pedestrian mall with fudge shops, post-card kiosks and sidewalk cafes. Its historic charm would be destroyed, they say.

But downtown merchants say wider sidewalks will help them compete with growing malls on the outskirts of town.

"This is just simply the biggest economic redevelopment tool that the downtown has had in years and years," said Penny Chandler, executive director of the Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce. "It just has to go through."

Plans for the $5 million project have been in the works for six years. This year, an independent advisory panel of downtown residents, business leaders and city officials approved the plan. The Historic District Commission, which has authority to approve the installation of a flower pot on a street in the historic district, gave preliminary approval to the Main Street project. Construction was to start in January.

But last month, commission members complained about the wider sidewalks, touching off the battle that city officials say could threaten the entire project.

Now construction is on hold while the City Council and historic preservationists trade accusations and engineers rework the blueprints. City officials said last week they are getting closer to a compromise with the Historic District Commission and submitted a new plan for review that calls for slightly narrower sidewalks that would bulge in places.

The Historic District Commission is set to vote on the plan Dec. 13.

Meanwhile, Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins is trying not to panic. The intense infighting could jeopardize the state's $1.25 million contribution to the project, he has said. And the longer the delay, the more likely construction will interfere with next year's holiday shopping season.

And then there's his ominous warning: The bumpy street already is seriously damaged.

"Main Street is sinking," Mr. Hopkins said recently. "It's sinking, I tell you."

Talk with downtown residents and business owners and you quickly get a feeling for their different visions for the future of Main Street.

"People would feel like they could come here, meet a friend for a cup of coffee, spend more time downtown [if the sidewalks are widened]," said Kathy Greentree, owner of Greentree's, an ice cream and coffee shop at 128 Main St. "European cities have been doing this for years and years, and they still have all the charm they've always had."

But downtown residents worry the street will turn into something that looks more like the boardwalk in Ocean City than the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

"We don't want a bunch of T-shirt shops and loser types," said Ted Grier, a historic district resident who wants the city to touch up Main Street but leave its basic design unchanged.

"The downtown part of the city must be home first and foremost to residents," said David Wallace, 44, a photographer who lives in Annapolis. "You lose that, and you've got Disneyland. It's a tourist mecca."

And the city's historic preservation panel says it isn't opposed to the Main Street plan. It simply wants a chance to review it formally. To do it right, the Historic District Commission must study every nook and cranny of the plan, which the city never formally presented to the commission, said Chairman Donna Ware.

"The HDC has been blamed for the delay of the Main Street project," she told the City Council recently. "But there is a shocking list of details to be worked out."

City officials say they're tired of waiting and tinkering, and note that the reconstruction plan has been kicking around for at least a year. Two different Main Street blueprints have been on display on large poster boards in City Hall for months. Why didn't anyone complain earlier? they ask.

Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff, a strong business proponent, said the spat isn't about Main Street at all, but the divisions between downtown businesses and residents.

"The issue isn't Main Street," said Ms. DeGraff, a Republican whose ward lies on the southern tip of the city, away from the historic district. "It's that the city has to choose between local business and historic district residents every time. It's gone too far."

City Administrator Michael D. Mallinoff argues that a handful of vocal residents with strong ties to the Historic District Commission are using Main Street as a way to rail against other local concerns, such as parking problems, late-night bar-hopping and weekend crowds.

"They're channeling their personal anger," he said. "I think a lot of times people are fighting other fights over public projects."

Downtown residents, historic preservationists and business owners have tussled before -- over rebricking State Circle, building a courthouse and building a downtown parking garage. But the Main Street project struck a nerve.

"Main Street is the element that binds the various communities together," Mr. McCarthy explained.

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