A look at Baltimore’s preservation and planning fiascos
PART 2: “This just keeps happening,” says a local architect, bemoaning the city’s botched attempts to save unique historic buildings that could uplift neighborhoods
Above: A developer tears down two 1840s stone millworker houses in Woodberry after promising to preserve them. (@sevensixfive)
The death sentence handed out to the Hendler Creamery Building – after a developer who promised to restore the historic property was allowed to dismantle major chunks of it – has sparked deeper questions about why preservation in Baltimore seems to fail time and again.
Lately, all it takes to prompt architects and others to unleash a litany of horror stories is the mere mention of the March 14 demolition vote by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) spelling out the likely end for the ornate, 131-year-old former ice cream plant on the east side.
“Look up the story of the Tower Building,” says architect Craig Purcell, still bitter about the 1986 tear down of the 18-story, clocked-topped structure that once stood prominently at the corner of Baltimore and South streets.
“Today, of course, it’s a parking lot.”
More recent examples have been cropping up with depressing regularity, he and others say.
There’s the grand antebellum Sellers Mansion on Lafayette Square in West Baltimore, envisioned for years by community leaders as a potential neighborhood anchor.
Developer Ernst Valery acquired the property in 2019 and publicized a plan to preserve the old mansion as the front entrance to a large senior apartment building.
The plan never went forward. After the latest of multiple fires struck the building in February, it was immediately torn down.
Mill House Massacre
For sheer audacity, it’s hard to beat what was done to two quaint 1840s stone houses in the historic district of Woodberry.
The developer promised they would be saved and incorporated into a modern residential building.
Renderings showed a four-story apartment building squeezed into a small lot and rising above a thin stone facade like an improbable masonry soufflé.
• PART 1: For critics decrying the state of historic preservation in Baltimore, Hendler Creamery is Exhibit A (4/10/23)
But then one morning in 2019, excavators showed up and simply clawed the troublesome old millworkers’ homes down, leaving the vacant lot that remains today. The city assessed the developer’s LLC a small fine, but never held anyone accountable.
“This just keeps on happening,” Purcell says. “A developer or builder makes a nice computer model and gets permission to build. Then, pfft, nothing happens. They just let the property rot for years, and then they say, ‘Oh, gee, it has to be demolished!’”
Lost Black History
The scenario is not precisely the same in these cases and to be sure, critics say, some development successes can be credited.
But they despair over what they see as a disturbing pattern of people with power and political sway ignoring community wishes, skirting the rules and destroying the fabric of the city.
The immediate agents of destruction are not always developers.
In the case of Freedom House in Marble Hill, the three-story brick structure was torn down in 2015 by Bethel AME Church, taking the preservationist community as well as civil rights advocates by surprise.
The residence of Baltimore’s first African-American City Council member, Freedom House later served as the home of Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Clarence Mitchell Jr. and was the meeting place for the local chapter of the NAACP. Visitors reportedly included Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.
“There’s no city in the United States that has more civil rights leaders, litigation and legislation than Baltimore City,” lamented Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, former head of the Baltimore NAACP, at the time. “But sadly enough, those who come to visit us have no idea what we have because we have gotten rid of so much of it.”
The 2015 Freedom House tear-down put Baltimore on national “Top 10” lists for preservation tragedies. Currently, the adjoining rowhouse at 1232 Druid Hill Avenue, also once used by civil rights activists and now owned by Bethel Church, is permitted for demolition.
Five years later, the city housing department brought down another part of historic Black Baltimore that advocates said should have been saved – the childhood home of bandleader Cab Calloway.
And in southwest Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood, the same department leveled hundreds of rowhouses, empowered by a 2005 agreement with a New York developer whose “game-changing” project has largely failed.
Despite blocks of empty space accumulating trash rather than 1,600 promised housing units, the Scott administration wanted to raze the pastel-colored alley houses on Sarah Ann Street inhabited by Black families for the last 150 years.
Demo was only stopped after massive community organizing.
Hole in the Ground
The critics say preservation losses have cost the city not just the opportunity to retain meaningful structures, but to incorporate them into a coherent plan to lift up neighborhoods and downtown.
The mother of all examples is the razing of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, as onetime Rouse Company executive W. Lehr Jackson sees it.
“It’s one of the things the city has allowed that has just decimated downtown,” said Jackson, who helped supervise such acclaimed adaptive re-use projects as Faneuil Hall in Boston, Union Station in D.C. and Belvedere Square in Baltimore.
Preservationists fought the 2014 demolition of the massive Modernist structure, but it was approved anyway with the blessing of City Hall and CHAP, citing developer David S. Brown’s promise to replace it with a mixed-use project designed to honor the original theater building.
Nearly a decade later, nothing has been built. The space remains empty, a gaping hole in the city’s geographic center at Charles and Baltimore streets.
The razing of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, still with nothing replacing it, “just decimated downtown” – planner and developer Lehr Jackson.
Architect and preservation consultant Klaus Philipsen offers a bitter assessment of the Mechanic saga.
The property “has been sitting as a fallow, derelict, minimal-tax wasteland ever since Howard Brown acquired it in 2005 and subsequently duped the historic preservation commission of CHAP into believing that he would develop AND preserve a large part of the former Mechanic,” Philipsen wrote on his blog last summer.
Critics decry demolitions like these, and what they see as a host of Baltimore planning disasters.
Jackson and many others point to the pushing out of small merchants from downtown’s Westside shopping district for an Atlanta developer’s “Superblock” project, which tanked in 2013 despite repeated attempts at resuscitation by City Hall and the Baltimore Development Corporation.
The odor of mold today wafts from empty storefronts decaying on Howard, Lexington and Fayette streets as the latest $100 million plan – helmed by a political consultant turned developer – struggles to meet deadlines so that some sort of construction may begin.
What’s the Solution?
To Jackson, retaining Baltimore’s unique built environment requires accountability, political will and smart planning, beginning at City Hall and extending to all players.
“We need an aggressive CHAP that’s not at the mercy of a mayor who says, ‘Hey, lighten up on these developers,’” he said.
Purcell agreed, citing the recent case of the 160-year-old, fully-occupied townhouse in Mount Vernon that was acquired by a novice developer and then destabilized by his adjacent apartment project.
Residents had to be evacuated from the cracked and damaged building. CHAP approved its demolition, while the housing department imposed no penalties on the builder, who kept the city in the dark for months about the building’s condition.
“A beautiful building literally falls apart because the builder had undermined it. Now that’s beyond demolition by neglect,” Purcell said.
A comprehensive discussion and rethinking of these issues needs to take place, both said. But who should lead it?
“Should it be the Baltimore branch of the American Institute of Architects? The Urban Land Institute? The Baltimore Development Corporation? The Downtown Partnership?” Purcell mused.
“They’ve all been presiding over the decline of this once great city, so maybe it shouldn’t be them.”
Comprehensive rethinking of preservation issues needs to take place. But who should lead it?
There are many preservation organizations, including Baltimore Heritage and Preservation Maryland. But their powers are limited, and they don’t always make an appearance when sensitive decisions are made.
None showed up, for example, at the March CHAP hearing when the fate of the Hendler Creamery was being sealed.
Experts have suggested procedural tools that might be used to exert influence on parties who own important historic properties.
“We need to find ways to make sure that every developer who wants to work in Baltimore knows what they’re doing and has the resources to do it,” said Kathleen Kotarba, who retired in 2014 after four decades as executive director of CHAP.
Figuring out how to do that is critical, said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage. “We need to look into whether other cities have something that works to prevent that demolition and deterioration before it happens.”
In a blog post after the Woodberry stone houses were razed, architect Philipsen suggested a number of possible strategies.
These included zoning code changes, meaningful fines for violations and a mandate to “not allow demolition anywhere without approved long-term plans and financing in place.”
“Amazing things are falling apart and some good things are happening. I personally don’t feel very powerful to change any of that” – CHAP Commissioner Ann Powell.
At yesterday’s CHAP pre-meeting, Executive Director Eric Holcomb introduced this issue as a thorny one for the commissioners to begin to discuss. Photos of the Sellers Mansion were on the screen behind him.
“What do we do when we have a developer that has a vacant building, we approve the plans and they for some reason can’t move forward. Maybe the financing and the building sits there and deteriorates?” he said.
“That’s the conversation, what do we do?”
Commissioner Nichole Battle took up his point, saying, “We should have some kind of say. . . What kind of sanctions could be put in place or what kind of incentives?”
Others countered, citing the difficulty of interfering with privately funded projects, the high costs of taking action if the city has to shoulder the burden (“stabilization is so expensive”) and the difficulty of keeping track of the many projects in the pipeline.
“Amazing things are falling apart and some good things are happening,” Commissioner Ann Powell said. “I personally don’t feel very powerful to change any of that.”
Preservation advocates have been trying for years to get the city to apply better business methods to rehabilitation projects, such as requiring performance bonds from developers to guarantee that promised work is honored.
Others say only structural changes will make a difference.
“Equalize the tax rate between the county and the city, and the money will flood in,” Purcell suggested. “We have to do something big because right now it’s not working. How about we look beyond Baltimore? We’re not the only Rust Belt city to have this problem.”
Still others argue that preservation’s benefits are not just cultural but economic – that reusing old buildings rather than scrapping them conserves resources and reduces waste, and that better planned neighborhoods yield gains in quality of life and public health.
The critics acknowledge that changing the city’s entrenched real estate culture will be difficult, and that the financial demands of historic preservation can be substantial.
Architect Jerome Gray said he doesn’t have any simple answers, but urges residents to speak up, community groups to take a stand and political leaders to rise to the challenge.
“My biggest beef is, we are always reactive. If we could collectively get ahead of the process, we’d have a fighting chance to save the city’s fabric before it’s too late.”
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