Friday, August 25, 2023

When preserving a historic building shouldn't be called hardship

"Many years ago I was of the theory that if you tear all the buildings down and put something new up, that was the right thing to do. What a mistake that was." (William Donald Schaefer in the 1999 documentary Westside Stories)

Baltimore is a charming city, architecturally. As much as an architect hates to admit it, Baltimore's architecture charm isn't the result of modern interventions but indicative of the vast historic building stock of all scales, size and purpose that has survived the great fire and urban renewal.  Even in the decay that comes from abandonment, old beauty shines through. 

The old B&O HQ lobby, today Hotel Monaco and
State offices (HCD). Photo: Philipsen

It is no surprise, then, that our historic districts are the most successful neighborhoods with the highest building values and the lowest vacancy rates, whether it is Federal Hill, Seton Hill, Fells Point, Mount Vernon, Hunting Ridge or Ten Hills to name just a few. And they don't have to be part of the "white L". 

Given the success of preserving history it is surprising how often developers buy old buildings in historic districts and then try to bail out when it comes to fixing them up. They complain about "hardship" when it comes to going the extra mile and opt for the shortcut of just knocking them down. 

This lazy approach is usually accompanied by the argument that whatever new they would build would be be much better than the derelict, vacant and neglected old structure they want to tear down. Duh! But this obviously a misleading argument. Nobody wants to keep the old shells with sagging floors and roofs. The comparison would be a new structure versus a rehabilitated one. No doubt, rehabilitation is often more expensive than new but the issue here is that the rehabilitated structure is more likely to add character and authenticity to a project that can directly translate into dollars and cents but that rehab will likely also retain value much better. In other words: Historic preservation requires the long view. Whoever is just interested in the short term calculation shouldn't even go into a historic district or at least not buy historic and contributing structures. 

Historic Hunting Ridge, Baltimore (Photo Philipsen)

Claiming hardship in a historic district with the argument  that only demolition "pencils out" should be a losing proposition right from the start, especially when property is being transferred from the City in a public process. 

The long view for preservation is not only supported by the excellent value retention and market conditions of most historic districts but also by the failure of projects that relied heavily on demolition.  I will use two projects as examples that were recently in the news.

Exhibit one is the La Cite development in Poppleton, which was predicated on the notion that an entire neighborhood had to be wiped out in order to create valuable new things that would be marketable.  The reality is that the two lone  large apartment blocks that La Cite actually managed to build are pretty much a disaster, even though the developer still calls them a success. They look rather predictable, stood empty for a long time due to a slew of construction errors, have rapid tenant turnover and never succeeded creating an attractive new community. Meanwhile the local papers are full with stories of displaced citizens that saw their houses bulldozed without anything meaningful being built to replace them. 

Exhibit two is the CenterPoint in Baltimore's old retail district "Market Center", constructed in tandem with the Hippodrome which was a great adaptive reuse project.

Centerpoint apartments
(Photo: Alex Cooper)
 By contrast, the bulk of Centerpoint was  new construction with several buildings on Howard Street being retained. After  17 years of existence the project is now being auctioned off. The ground floor retail was practically never fully occupied and whatever leases there were, they changed frequently. The last stores to close were Starbucks which had been seen as the shining star of the development and El Forno, a much liked Italian restaurant which offered the Hippodrome audiences a convenient place to eat before or after the show across the street. Conflict was in the DNA of the project, beginning with the protracted battles of several historic businesses such as the historic Hippodrome Hatter for being allowed to remain. They lost, had to close, relocate and eventually had to shut down, even though they had been re-planted in more modern facilities. 
The driver of the CenterPoint project is the newly constructed apartment tower of mediocre design and lacking the charm of competing nearby apartments in historic buildings, such as in the former Hechts department store or in the old BGE headquarters.   The maybe oldest westside example of successful adaptive reuse (from school to housing) are the Chesapeake Commons in Seton Hill and the sailcloth factory on Martin Luther King Boulevard, both still going strong

Far from learning from these experiences, the developer of the Superblock and a developer who wants to redevelop the corner of West Park Avenue and West Lexington Street, Chukeo Ukoro, both applied

The proposed replacement structure is shockingly unappealing
(Image: Okoro development)
for demolition of most historic buildings in their respective blocks, even though they knew very well, that historic structures in the local Five and Dime historic district are protected and must be preserved. Unless....This is where the "substantial hardship" argument comes in as the camel's nose in the preservation tent. Preservationist are no economists and time and again they got the wool pulled over their eyes by "hardship" arguments they couldn't verify. Time and again demo happy developers just look at a single building without considering their context next to them or across the street. Historic preservation is no longer just the single landmark "on a silver tray", but it is also context and meaning.
The second building from left: Proposed for demolition but CHAP
requested preservation (for now.) Photo: Philipsen

To their credit and in a sign of a new resolve, the historic district commission CHAP has lately shown some teeth and a new assertiveness in which it even preempted the City Council by banning the gas meter and regulator installations in front of facades in historic districts. For the two recent projects on the agenda in the Five and Dime historic district held a fairly admirable line and didn't fully cave immediately cave to the developers, no matter how much they claimed "hardship" in several sessions. 

Tearing down the seven buildings at Howard and Fayette streets would give the team land to construct an efficient, code-compliant, economically-viable replacement building that could meet the needs of today’s tenants.(Developer Janian's argument as quoted in Baltimore Fishbowl)

The center building: Proposed for demolition on Park Ave
(Photo: Philipsen)

For the Compass project on the "superblock" the panel initially rejected five of seven demo requests and stuck to their guns in a second meeting where the hardship argument was made in detail. In a third meeting on August 8, the Commission agreed to a third building to be demolished and to partial preservation of the facades for two others This solution was celebrated as a compromise. Facade preservation is usually being frowned upon by preservationists. However, it allows a consistent streetscape and can be a successful compromise in cases where floorplates and floor elevations of existing structures are too small to work with modern egress and fire codes and hard to integrate into a proposed project. An example of such facadectomy can be found on Baltimore's Braodway in Fells Point. 
Fayette Street buildings slated for demo. The adjacent former
Trailways bus station (foreground) has long been demolished
(Photo: Philipsen)

For the second project debated on the same day, CHAP was more forceful. The developer asked for the demolition of the  three-story building at 114 W. Lexington St. that once served as the entry to a theater, the former Ann Lewis department store at 116-120 W. Lexington St., and the four-story commercial building at 207-209 Park Ave. CHAP agreed initially only to the non contributing corner building to be demolished. One building on Lexington and two on Park Avenue are to stay. The Baltimore SUN described  the developer as "dejected" but ready to come back with a revised proposal. 

CHAP should generally reject the hardship argument. It is no hardship if you have to do what the law has been saying all along. You can't buy an old car and the complain that it has a combustion engine. 

The developers should have known what they were in for when they applied to redevelop properties in a historic district. “It costs money to preserve buildings, and the developers came in and got a [land disposition agreement] and sought to develop these buildings in a historic district that you designated, and that should actually mean something – to CHAP, to the citizens who care about preservation and the history and the environment on the west side of downtown. (Nicole King, Professor of American studies at the CHAP hearing as quoted in Baltimore Fishbowl)

Howard Street buildings for which parts of the facade
need to be saved (Photo Philipsen)

As I have pointed out many times in this space, the success of Baltimore's own historic districts prove that proper historic preservation yields a return on investment. If our own examples are not convincing enough, look elsewhere. For example, in Cincinnati's Over the Rhine, a carefully preserved and now thriving historic district that had fallen on hard times, similar to our own "westside". 

Former industrial legacy cities like Baltimore and Cincinnati need to leverage their assets prudently. Like it or not with Fortune 500 headquarters gone, the garment industry decimated and manufacturing reduced to a trickle their biggest asset is  beautiful historic architecture. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related content on this blog: 

How to invite demolition by neglect

Why the demolition of historic buildings remains a bad idea

Bombing Downtown

For an article explaining the history of previous redevelopment attempts for the mentioned buildings see here

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