City needs comprehensive approach to preservation

March 07, 2007|By Tyler Gearhart

Controversies surrounding the demolition of the Rochambeau Apartments and a block of 1820 rowhouses, as well as the plight of the Senator Theatre, have brought renewed focus on the future of Baltimore's architectural heritage.

Preservationists welcome recent calls for the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) to be more proactive in designating buildings as historic landmarks. But landmarking is a political process that requires CHAP, Planning Commission, and City Council approval to protect individual buildings and historic districts. It is only part of what needs to be done to preserve Baltimore's unique character.

In concept, most people think that preserving historically and architecturally significant buildings is a worthy goal. Many of us live in historic homes and neighborhoods and seek out historic sites when we travel. Most agree that historic preservation enhances our quality of life by preserving a sense of history and place; contributes to the economy by creating new jobs and attracting new businesses and residents; and helps protect the environment and Chesapeake Bay by reusing existing buildings and infrastructure.

The problems arise when historic preservation and economic development interests collide on projects where money, property rights and politics come into play. These controversies put pressure on the laws and regulations intended to preserve historic properties. Unfortunately, those same pressures cause city officials and other stakeholders to sometimes lose sight of the broader goals and benefits of those protections. To successfully preserve Baltimore's historic buildings, a comprehensive approach is required.

First, Baltimore's government, business and city leaders need to understand the value of Baltimore's architectural heritage and demonstrate the will to uphold the laws and regulations intended to preserve it. The city's recently approved comprehensive master plan incorporates preservation strategies into each of its key goals (Live, Earn, Plan and Learn). Baltimore has 125 individual landmarks and 30 historic districts that include 9,000 structures. In addition, many historic buildings are protected under the city's many urban renewal plans. Preservation is a primary goal of the city's plans and laws, not a secondary consideration.

Second, CHAP must complete the comprehensive update of its guidelines and procedures and be more active in landmarking buildings and districts. When she was City Council president, Mayor Sheila Dixon appointed a task force to recommend how to strengthen and enhance CHAP and its programs. Most of those recommendations have either been completed or are under way. The commission recently adopted procedures to facilitate landmark designations, which previously required owner consent. In the past year, CHAP has recommended six new individual landmarks and four new districts for designation, including all of Fells Point, with its 1,500 historic buildings.

Third, there must continue to be effective incentives for rehabilitating historic buildings. Given the economic and environmental benefits of historic preservation, the state and city offer tax credits for renovating designated historic buildings. These incentives have stimulated close to $1 billion of investment. Arguably, the tax credit programs are Baltimore's most effective revitalization strategy ever. Regrettably, both are slated to expire. Members of the Maryland General Assembly and Baltimore City Council must act quickly to ensure that these invaluable incentives are continued.

Last, we need owners, developers and architects with the vision, commitment and investment to creatively reuse historic buildings. Sadly, the best protections and incentives are not always enough to prevent historic buildings from being demolished. We've seen that owners armed with lawyers and political influence can sometimes circumvent protections and demolish buildings intended to be preserved.

Fortunately, other historic properties, often landmark-worthy but not yet protected, have been beautifully renovated, creating jobs, attracting residents and businesses, and spurring the revitalization of their surrounding neighborhoods. The Mount Washington Mill, Can Company, Tremont Grande, Standard, Centerpoint and Hippodrome Theatre projects are some of the best examples.

Those projects contribute to Baltimore's uniqueness, giving the city its competitive edge and fueling its renaissance.

Tyler Gearhart is executive director of Preservation Maryland and chairman of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. His e-mail is tgearhart@preservationmaryland.org.

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