Planning and preservation go together

July 26, 2005|By James Determan and Gordon T. Ingerson

THE FORCES OF historic preservation and opposing interests have manned the trenches again, and the bodies have begun to pile up.

This particular conflict is being fought over the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) in an apparent attempt to weaken its influence as it relocates from the city's Department of Housing and Community Development to the Planning Department. The Baltimore component of the American Institute of Architects, AIABaltimore, believes that this clash is entirely unnecessary and completely avoidable.

Preservation is an excellent planning tool, and planning is inseparable from preservation; any attempt to weaken one will weaken the other.

AIABaltimore has been a strong supporter of CHAP and believes that it should remain strong and independent. CHAP has helped to preserve Baltimore's historic neighborhoods and sites since 1964, with one of the strongest preservation ordinances in the country.

Such preservation powerhouses as Boston have looked on with envy as Baltimore has amassed an enviable track record; over 8,000 buildings are protected in 26 historic districts and 120 local landmark structures have been designated. Since 2000, Baltimore has established five historic districts and 11 additional local landmarks.

CHAP has been the defender of our historic heritage. In addition to other roles, it reviews projects in historic districts and proposals for individual historic properties to ensure that they are compatible with the character of the district or structure.

It was created to protect our valuable heritage from those who would diminish it for temporary economic or political gain, as illustrated by the recent proposal for the wholesale demolition of West Side architectural treasures to make way for a mass of retail big boxes that would be outmoded in five years. The primary purpose of its appointed volunteer commissioners is to protect our inheritance. An independent CHAP has played a crucial part in maintaining the essential humanity, authenticity and charm that tells us that we are in Baltimore, not Houston.

But CHAP's position in the city hierarchy has not been without its problems. It often has been reduced to fighting rear-guard actions isolated from the rest of the city administration. Worse, neighborhood and district plans have been created without CHAP's input or any consideration for the positive role that preservation plays.

The lack of input from CHAP has meant that its decisions have sometimes seemed at cross-purposes with the opinions of other agencies and review panels, to the frustration of landowners and developers. This structure also has set up artificial opposition between preservation and economic advancement. This false dichotomy has often been used as a smokescreen for personal political agendas or individual economic interests.

CHAP was relocated from DHCD to the Planning Department last year, along with proposed changes to the enabling legislation. The move has incited suspicion among many in the preservation community.

Preservationists protested the city's unilateral action and, as a result, the City Council created a task force whose report was issued in January. Its members included representatives of the City Council, CHAP, the neighborhoods, city agencies, the business community, preservation organizations and AIABaltimore.

It surveyed best practices from around the country and issued recommendations for incorporation into the amendments to the CHAP ordinance and for the operations of CHAP in its new home. These were a carefully considered balance between CHAP's independence and its empowerment as part of the Planning Department.

Proposals have been made to change the legislation that does not agree with the intent of the task force's recommendations. Included is a plan to have the Planning Commission hear all appeals to CHAP decisions, which could effectively end any power that CHAP has to shape our city. Other proposals would change the composition of CHAP by removing an African-American historian in favor of an at-large mayoral appointee and not permitting CHAP to choose its own chairman. These proposals have once again raised questions about the motivations of those suggesting the changes, which now threaten the entire process.

AIABaltimore believes that the move to the Planning Department has enormous potential because it will place the commission in the center of the city's policymaking process instead of at the periphery. It believes that one of the most historic cities in America deserves a Planning Department with preservation as one of its central tenets. It also believes that the current independence of CHAP should be maintained. Anything less will be a great loss for Baltimore.

James Determan is president and Gordon T. Ingerson is past president of AIABaltimore.

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