Restore buildings to former grandeur in west side plan

February 19, 1999|By Bill Pencek and Tyler Gearhart

THIS is an exciting time for those of us who believe the conditions are finally right for the revitalization of the west side of downtown Baltimore. But as H. L. Mencken wrote, "For every complex, difficult problem, there is a simple, easy solution, and it is wrong."

Revitalizing the west side of downtown is a complex challenge that must include a detailed program for restoring historic buildings -- not just a few silver bullet projects or a plan that is short on specifics.

Of the details released so far on the west side plan, it appears that little attention has been paid to historic preservation. That's a glaring omission because the historic buildings and streetscapes of that area comprise 200 years of U.S. building history that's unique in the Chesapeake region.

Historic place

Like all historic districts, from Annapolis to Soho, the west side's appeal lies not only in its handful of individual landmark structures such as the Hippodrome and Stewart's department store, but also in its collection of buildings and compelling streetscapes that could never be duplicated.

They are easily the equal of any comparable buildings in this country and are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Baltimore has the opportunity to follow the lead of Denver, New Orleans, Boston and other cities, where historic preservation has played a key role in successful downtown revitalization.

Importantly, the preservation of these assets is not an obstacle to revitalization and significant new construction. In fact, they can actually serve as the best fuel for sustainable revitalization.

There are ample west side sites where new buildings could be built without demolishing old ones. Incremental rehabilitation of such historic buildings can be faster, more affordable and creates more jobs than new construction.

A preservation-based revitalization process that is incremental, affordable and sustainable is far more likely to result in what we all want: a diverse, vital, desirable district with a good mix of small, interesting locally owned stores and national retailers.

Money for the Hipp

The $350 million west side plan, which includes the $50 million renovation of the Hippodrome Theater at 12 N. Eutaw St., would tie the Inner Harbor to Charles Center and the expanding University of Maryland, Baltimore, creating a new city core.

But the plan -- which permits the city to condemn 127 properties in an 18-square-block area -- fails to acknowledge our historic assets and tips the scale toward demolition through the threat of condemnation.

The city should ensure a level playing field for the continued use of our historic assets, and create the conditions and the process that will leverage the maximum small- and large-scale private investment in preservation-based revitalization.

Happily, this is easy to do. Maryland has a system of rehabilitation tax credits that can return 45 cents on every $1 spent in the rehabilitation to the property owner.

A strategy as simple as listing the west side development area in the National Register of Historic Places makes these incentives available, and could serve as an important stimulus to privately sponsored rehabilitation activity at no net cost to city taxpayers.

Revitalization strategies that do not avoid the destruction of significant historic resources, when reasonable alternatives exist, do not constitute Smart Growth. We must get west side revitalization right, using the assets we have as wisely as possible.

Bill Pencek is president of Baltimore Heritage Inc., and Tyler Gearhart is executive director of Preservation Maryland.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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