Protesting isn't enough in building preservation

URBAN LANDSCAPE

Vigilance: Support of proposals to save historic structures can be as important as fighting the demolition. Actions concerning the old USF&G headquarters illustrate the point.

April 22, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

PRESERVATIONISTS typically protest when architecturally significant buildings are threatened with demolition, and sometimes they succeed in stopping the wrecking ball.

But would-be preservationists must be equally vigilant in voicing support for proposals that could save endangered buildings, or they could lose them.

That's one lesson from a recent City Council committee hearing that involved the former United States Fidelity and Guaranty Corp. headquarters, a seven-story landmark at 131 E. Redwood St.

Baltimore's public works department and downtown development agency have been working to build a 440-space parking garage near Calvert and Redwood streets to ease the downtown parking shortage. They're seeking council authorization to spend up to $12 million to acquire property and pay for construction.

The Planning Commission approved a plan this month that would enable the city to construct a garage that wouldn't require demolition of the USF&G headquarters, which dates from 1905. But the plan hit a snag at a subsequent meeting of the City Council's Taxation and Finance Committee -- in large part because no one from outside the city government testified in favor of the city's plan, while many spoke against it.

As a result, committee chairman Martin C. O'Malley said he is unwilling to bring the property acquisition bill out of committee and up for a vote by the full council. "We're getting a little condemnation-happy in this city," O'Malley said this week. "Just because we can do it doesn't mean we should."

Two sites have been suggested for the garage, and both would involve demolition.

One option calls for the garage to be constructed in place of the former USF&G building on Redwood Street and its annex at 26 S. Calvert St. Both are vacant, so no tenants would be displaced.

The second option calls for construction of a mid-block garage that would take the place of the USF&G annex, four smaller buildings in the 100 block of S. Calvert St. and a commercial building at 117 Water St. Those structures don't have the architectural pedigree of the USF&G headquarters, but they're occupied by a dozen businesses that don't want to be displaced.

For city officials, the path of least resistance would have been to acquire the two empty USF&G buildings, but they decided instead to seek authorization to raze the smaller buildings that are full of tenants.

The city chose the more complicated option, officials say, to preserve a building that has strong potential to be restored for new uses and to keep intact a key stretch of Redwood Street.

For years, preservationists have argued that Redwood Street is the heart and soul of Baltimore's financial district and that the best of its buildings should be preserved at all costs. The USF&G building is clearly one of the best -- the sort that couldn't be duplicated today.

Besides concurring with the preservationists, city redevelopment officials found a way to ensure that the surviving USF&G building would be fixed up.

The nonprofit Abell Foundation has offered to lend money to help the city acquire the building from its owners, if necessary, and offer it for resale to a developer who would recycle it. Abell would be reimbursed by the city from the proceeds of the sale.

The Planning Commission approved the plan April 8. But at the April 15 Taxation and Finance Committee hearing, many of the property owners and tenants who would be displaced by the mid-block garage testified against the plan and suggested the city take the vacant buildings instead.

Local preservationists did not appear to testify in favor of the city's strategy to protect Redwood Street. As a result, the city ended up looking like a villain for proposing to displace tenants.

O'Malley said he could be overruled, if 10 other council members are willing to bring the bill out of committee for a vote. But for now, he said, he does not see any reason to support the city's plan.

"The city made a good case about the need for more parking downtown," he said. "But they didn't make a good case for tearing down buildings that are full of tenants, when there are vacant buildings that could be acquired. This is a matter of displacing people who don't want to be displaced. It doesn't make any sense."

City officials must decide whether to withdraw the bill, seek other ways to get it passed, or identify alternate sites to acquire, such as the USF&G building they avoided the first time around.

Because the preservationists didn't make a strong enough stand, they might lose a key building on Redwood Street. In the meantime, the city isn't much closer to building a garage near Calvert and Redwood streets than it was a year ago.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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