Seeking to save history

URBAN LANDSCAPE

District: A Baltimore commission will ponder a request to designate 24 blocks as the Market Center Historic District, creating a "powerful economic development tool."

September 09, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

TWENTY-FOUR city blocks on the west side of downtown Baltimore would be designated a national historic district, if public officials approve a nomination by local preservationists.

Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) is scheduled next week to consider a request to add to the National Register of Historic Places an area bounded roughly by Park Avenue and Liberty Street on the east, Baltimore Street on the south, Pearl Street on the west and Centre Street on the north.

The meeting will be held Tuesday on the eighth floor of the municipal building at 417 E. Fayette St. It is one step in a lengthy review process that began this year.

If the area is added to the National Register, it would be one of the largest in the city to be designated a national historic district, with 403 "contributing" buildings and 53 "noncontributing" buildings. Structures within the proposed Market Center Historic District would range from the historic Mayfair Theater and the former Congress Hotel to Lexington Market and the newer One Market Center office building.

Historic district designation "is a powerful economic development tool that will stimulate private investment in the area," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland. "It's one the city should recognize and want to use." The designation was proposed by the Baltimore Architectural Foundation with strong support from two other preservation groups that are working to save historic buildings on the west side of downtown: Preservation Maryland and Baltimore Heritage.

The area is the focus of a $350 million revitalization plan backed by the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; the University of Maryland, Baltimore; and the Weinberg Foundation, one of the area's largest landowners.

But early plans by Design Collective Inc., a local architectural firm, indicated that many buildings could be demolished rather than fixed up. That alarmed preservationists and prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to add the west side of downtown Baltimore this year to its annual list of endangered places.

Local preservationists say the creation of a district on the west side of downtown Baltimore would encourage renovation and restoration of older buildings by making property owners eligible for local, state and federal tax credits for historic preservation.

At the same time, they say, adding a district to the National Register doesn't in itself prevent an owner from demolishing a building there if private funds are used, and it does not mean renovation or demolition plans would be subject to design review by the city's preservation agency. No legal restrictions beyond those already in effect would apply to properties in the district, they say.

Representatives from the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public agency that oversees downtown development, have said they will work to save as many historic buildings as possible on the west side of downtown, but they do not support creation of a federal historic district.

Representatives from the Weinberg Foundation also have expressed reservations about creating a historic district, because they fear it could add a layer of bureaucracy that could pose obstacles to revitalization plans.

As a result, the Baltimore Architectural Foundation obtained a grant from the Maryland Historic Trust and hired a Washington-based preservation consultant, Betty Byrd, to survey buildings and prepare a formal nomination for district designation.

Before any area is added to the National Register, the nomination must be considered on the city level and then the state level.

On the city level, the plan is being considered separately by the preservation commission and Schmoke's office. Here's how it works:

If either party approves the nomination, it would be reviewed by the Maryland Historical Trust and the Governor's Consulting Committee, a preservation panel.

If both CHAP and Schmoke disapprove of the plan, the nomination would be stalled. But an aggrieved party could appeal and ask the Maryland Historical Trust to override the city representatives.

If 51 percent of the property owners in the district oppose the nomination, it would fail.

If the Governor's Consulting Committee approves the nomination, it would be forwarded to the U.S. Department of the Interior and most likely would be listed on the National Register within 90 days.

CHAP's hearing on the west side district nomination is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday. Public testimony is welcome.

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