Friday, October 14, 2016

Preservation is better than demolition

That Baltimore County is far behind the City on the insight that preservation of substantial old buildings is good business and ultimately adds more value to a community than new cosntrsuction becomes obvious in the recent debate about the future of the Catonsville Elementary School of 1910 on Frederick Road.

The County wants to raze the proud 57,700 sf structure in favor of a expeditious, dinky 13,000 sf run-of the mill standard rec center structure that would hardly be visible on Catonsville's Main Street.
A 2014 photo of the school from the Catonsville Times which wrote a
profile about me

The old ES became vacant in a game of musical chairs which in itself is the result of a previous fight about demolition, in which the old Bloomsbury Middle School, also located in Catonsville's village center, was saved from the wrecking ball in 1995. The elementary school recently moved into a yet again renovated Bloomsbury building where it could expand to accommodate 700 students but displaces community center functions.

The Frederick Road ES had been slightly over state capacity, with 458 students in a school with an maximum enrollment of 405. At Bloomsbury the will also have air-conditioning, something the old building lacked. Everybody knows by now, how AC has advanced to the highest educational level.

This leaves the question what to do with the old facility that now stands empty. The fact that the future use of vacated buildings isn't part of the plans for new ones has puzzled me for a long time, especially for public buildings, but State, Feds and locals are all equally guilty of not integrating use of abandoned facilities into their equations. A monstrous example of that is the move of Social Security West from downtown Baltimore to Reisterstown Road, a move that left 11 acres in downtown abandoned, and no plans for the 1.1 million square in place. (That facility was eventually auctioned off to Caves Valley developers, plans for future use are still being developed).

Proposed small community center (hatched area) set back from
Frederick Road (foreground)
To be fair, the County didn't jump straight to the conclusion that the school needs to be demolished but first stayed demolition for a year to give the Baltimore County Arts Guild, a chance to raise money for a smaller renovation suitable to use the building as a county arts center similar to the former Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. When those funds didn't materialize, the County asked the architects of Manns Woodward Studios of White Marsh, a firm on their on-call roster, to assess the cost of a renovation to Baltimore County standards. The architecture firm has extensive experience with public facility buildings and, according to their website has done some historic preservation work, but it appears to have no or little experience with adaptive reuse. They prepared a report that results in a $19 million cost for a full renovation, money the County doesn't have available for a building that is larger than the community center program the County has in mind. So the modular rec center was drawn up by another on-call consultant and an enlarged green space on the large set back sold as a "plaza" with the idea that it responds to Catonsville's open space needs. The initial concept plan presented to me in a recent meeting looks very unconvincing.

There are many reasons to keep the old structure:
  • Preservation of a piece of Catonsville culture where many residents went to school

  • Maintaining the by far largest historic building on Frederick Road

  • Saving the embedded energy of  a substantial structure exhibiting past craft

  • Over 50,000 squarefeet of use have a much bigger potential of positive economic activity and fiscal impact than 13,000. 

  • The existing building makes for a much better "main street" type streetscape

  • The existing building can accommodate many uses that would be good to have in Catonsville, including a county arts center. 

  • An open space bracketed by a substantial building makes for a much better public plaza
The biggest issue, though, is that most of the discussion about an arts center or demolition for a smaller recreation or community center have been held with small groups and behind closed doors leaving the larger community to just hearing things through the grape-vine. Catonsville resident Char Brooks will put an end to the secrecy with a public meeting she plans to hold on November 22 in the Catonsville Library. Councilman Tom Quirk also supports a robust public discussion and additional options.
The Catonsville ES from above (Frederick Road at top):
Some demolition in back is possible

County officials need to get beyond the two extreme choices of spending $19 million precious tax dollars or razing the school. Adaptive reuse can include a profitable private component that can bring the missing funds to the table in turn for a use that could generate taxes and actually generate income to the County.

Sometime in the 1990s the County has tried this option before, in York Road with a Coeckeysville school. Baltimore City has plenty of converted schools, artists in old warehouses and factories and new schools in old warehouses, all including private development money. The city has actually become a ntional model for creative adaptive reuse. It is time for the County to become a bit more imaginative than simply tearing down history.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN about the elementary school swap


Related article on this blog:

How this Catonsville Elementary School can be saved