City & Plamondon begin historic preservation permitting — first workshop July 13

Nine years after City officials “identified a need” for a City-specified and City-sponsored downtown hotel and established a hotel advisory committee to advance the project, the first plans have been submitted to the City’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).  The hotel project is broken into four applications (1) HPC17-489 demolition of the southern half of the News Post building (2) HPC17-490 demolition of the Birely Tannery building (3) HPC17-491 the new hotel plan (4) HPC17-492 proposed rehab of northern portion of News-Post building. In all cases the property owner a Randall family company, the City of Frederick and the Plamondon companies are teamed up as ‘co-applicants’ in the filings, with local architect Jim Mills of Bates Architects listed as official agent.

The most problematic of the four cases, I think, is HPC17-490, the application for permission to demolish the Birely Tannery building. So we hit off in this post with an analysis of the Birely demolition filing, leaving others for later. Direct quotes from the City/Plamondon application HPC17-490 are in italics followed by comment.

The building will need to be removed in its entirety due to its location within the footprint of the proposed building.

COMMENT: The applicants have chosen to design the hotel with a footprint covering the

City consultant OPX site plan to keep Birely

entirety of the Birely Tannery building. The footprint of the building can be be modified to allow preservation of the Birely Tannery. OPX, a hotel consultant to the City back in 2010 (Hotel Market Demand Study, Frederick MD, Pinnacle Advisory Group and OPX, January 2010 showed a site plan (Site Option V, Plan 3, p69) which fully preserves both historic buildings on the site and accommodates a hotel of 185 rooms plus meeting space. The diagram shows among Pros “Unique Historic Buildings”  preserved, and among Cons  “Short on the room count.” 185 rooms was indeed short of the City’s original room count requirement of a minimum of 200 rooms, but it is almost exactly what is now proposed.  Option V, Plan 3 is a convoluted layout to be sure and the hotel is 5 stories (one more than the submitted plan that is under consideration.) But contrary to the application for demolition, the Birely could be saved and the hotel built, according to the City’s own consultant OPX.

The current condition of the building is fair to poor, based on review of both interior and exterior conditions. The building has been unoccupied for decades, and a fire in the building has compromised portions of the structure. What few of the 20th century wood (six-over-six) windows that remain are significantly  damaged and would require reconstruction. The roof appears to be built-up tar paper material providing minimal protection for the building.

The unmentionable brickwork is in good condition

COMMENT: The Birely Tannery is a solid brick building, yet HPC17-490 the demolition application manages to ignore the brickwork entirely in its comment on the condition of the building.  The building’s double and triple layered brick on stone construction forms the walls of the building. Apart from a few courses above lintels, this brickwork is in good to excellent condition. The walls of course provide most of the structural strength and provide most support for floors and roof. The roof lines look good, giving the lie to the applicants’  assertion that the building is structurally compromised. The roof and floors can be renewed as needed. The windows and doors are eminently replaceable. The prominent and distinctive smokestack is as plumb and true as the day, about a century ago, when the masons laid the last bricks, nearly 40 feet up.

Only by the brazenly dishonest omission of any reference to the Birely Tannery building’s  main material — brickwork — can the applicants claim the condition of the building is ‘fair to poor’ or suggest its structural integrity is compromised.

Some members of the community have asked why this site was selected over others that may have been in consideration for the Downtown Hotel. The Hotel Advisory Committee identified four sites in Downtown Frederick which are appropriately sized and within walking distance of downtown (within 1/4 mile from the intersection of East Patrick St and East Street.) Each of the sites was evaluated by the consultant architect OPX as part 

Applicants’ photographs show roof rafters in good condition

of the initial market demand study to be  appropriately sized to accommodate a 200 room full-service hotel and 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of meeting space. JLL also conducted a comprehensive criterion based analysis of the sites… Using these criteria, the subject site was ranked the highest of the four that were identified(Downtown Post Office, Old Frederick News Post Property, Wormald Property (Galleria), Douglas Development (McHenry/Union Mills Property.)

COMMENT: This is misleading. OPX did not recommend the Frederick News-Post site (Site V in its consideration of six sites U through Z) over the others.  The conclusion of OPX report was merely to say that the chosen Frederick News Post (FNP) site, the Post Office (PO) site and the Galleria site were collectively better than the other three. Here are their words: “After considering the pros and cons of each site, we believe that Sites U, V and W are more desirable for development than Sites X, Y and Z.” (page 64 of Hotel Market Demand Study, Frederick MD, Pinnacle Advisory Group and OPX, January 2010 Site W, the Galleria site  was therefore ranked about equally with the Frederick News-Post site V and the PO site U. (p70)

Notes written on the Site V plan describe a Con of the site as “Complicated Demolition of Historic Building.” And a Con of the Galleria site W was noted as “Developer already committed” which turned out not to be so, because four years later the developer Wormald submitted the competing hotel plan.

The cited JLL report on sites has not been released by the City to date (We have requested a copy.) And the JLL ranking of sites was never mentioned in City briefings on the project.

Judging the various sites by visibility and ease of access for visitors coming off the interstates, the chosen FNP site is probably the worst of them all, certainly markedly inferior to the Galleria site. It also has the worst traffic impacts because of the many left turns needed.

The project team does not take the removal of the former Birely Tannery lightly. The team presents this design as its best and only feasible option.

COMMENT: The Plamondon team DID take removal of the Birely lightly in their winning proposal to the City in late 2013, writing about it in a single supremely confident sentence: “Based on extensive historical studies already conducted by the Plamondon Development Team, PHP is confident that the buildings to be demolished are ‘non-contributing’ historically, and fully satisfy the criteria in Section 423 of the LMC for demolition.”

The ‘extensive historical studies’ that led Plamondon to dismiss the historic significance of the Birely Tannery back in 2013 are intriguing because they are the polar opposite of the conclusion reached by the Maryland Historical Trust, which described the buildings (FNP and Birely) as not only ‘contributing’ historic resources in the historic district but also of such importance they are deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The Birely Tannery building was found to be the last remaining building from the important 19th century leather tanning industry in the state of Maryland (not just in Frederick as the applicants say.)

Although we acknowledge that the building may be one of the last remnants of the

Wall of 3 story portion of Birely

tanning industry in Frederick, the integrity of the building as it exists today has been seriously compromised in a variety of ways. The most negative impact occurred when the Carroll Creek flood control project was constructed in the 1990s. The new structures are located within feet of the existing building and more than 6’ in elevation higher than the lower floor of  of the building. In removing the last of the site features and structures affiliated with the tannery operation, the context provided by these structures was eradicated. The vertical elevation difference between the new and the original also exacerbates the context issues, since what were a series of structures along the banks of the creek is now a lone building in a deeply recessed site. These past decisions not only signaled the the lack of the building’s importance to the community at large, but also significantly constrained future opportunities for adaptive reuse of the building.

Other relevant issues were the major fire and subsequent sale of the property and conversion into a poultry processing plant. The integrity of the building has been severely compromised due to both these events.

COMMENT: So what? A city like Frederick is never going to have museum-style historic ‘integrity.’ We are not Colonial Williamsburg, designed to be a frozen depiction of a historic place at a specific point in time. Lack of original context, loss of ‘integrity,’ is not a valid argument against preservation of a specific building. If it were, it is difficult to think of a single building in Frederick that would be protected from demolition. In every case the original context has been, in the co-applicants’ word, eradicated.

Old contexts are constantly being lost in any living city and new, often incongruous contexts will take their place. Many valuable and beloved historic buildings lose their context and hence in a sense, their ‘integrity,’ but we wouldn’t allow their demolition on that account.

Barbara Fritchie defies rebels, context eradicated by road improvements and bridge at front, flood conduits at back

Examples? At the western end of the Park, the Barbara Fritchie House’s relationship to Carroll Creek was radically changed by the same flood control conduits and promenades. The Fritchie site, one could argue lost its ‘integrity’ along with the Birely. Was that an argument to allow its demolition? Schifferstadt, probably the City’s most famous historic building, has lost its ‘integrity’ too. Its ancillary farm buildings, mostly wooden, rotted away or were removed over time. Then the construction of the elevated Frederick Freeway (now US15) to the immediate west changed Schifferstadt’s context dramatically.

Retaining the ‘context’ is naturally preferred by historic preservationists. But retaining old buildings in their original surroundings or ‘context’ isn’t usually possible in a developing city. Things around change. Loss of original context and reduced historic ‘integrity’ is an inherent part of the way a city evolves.

The ‘problem,’ as the co-applicants are determined to see it, of the park promenades of Carroll Creek Park being 6ft (or more) higher than the Birely building can be remedied with a nice set of outdoor stairs. The difference in grades adds interest. Making a feature of the changes of grade, having visitors walk down steps, can be part of telling the Birely building’s story.

It is not true that there was no interest in the Birely.  The comprehensive plan for Carroll Creek Linear Park always envisaged preservation and reuse of the Birely Tannery building. The crib retaining wall system of concrete beams along the edge of the  Park is a flexible design, easily modified. So the Birely building could readily be given more space southside, in association with the stairs, or ramp of a walkable connection to the park’s promenades.

The Birely buildings and the site were constantly changing over the years. They went from general leather manufacture to specialty leathers to wholesale leather trade to poultry production and apartments. The building that remains went through fires, floods, rebuilds, additions, subtractions. That story of change can be told inside and outside of a restored Birely building in displays of the many plans, photographs, and relics from earlier times.

In summary, the only remaining portion of the tannery construction in its original configuration is the ground floor portion of the south wall, which is in fieldstone construction…

COMMENT: This is inaccurate as well as beside the point, a product perhaps of Plamondon’s ‘extensive historical studies’ that pointed with such certainty to the building being designated historically ‘non contributing.’ Photographs after the 1909 fire show the bulk of the brick walls still standing. Plus newspaper reports indicate it was rebuilt within weeks. That suggests much of the masonry goes well back into the 19th century heyday of tanning. The establishment continued in the leather business well into the 20th century. In its later years it could be regarded as a building built for the tanning business that transitioned.

The (Birely) building location itself impacts the overall plan for the new (hotel) construction, both in section and plan. As this (and arguably any new construction on this site) aims to tie into the grades of the existing Carroll Creek Park improvements, the building is a story below the anticipated grades for this to occur. Likewise the location of the building on the site would require any new construction to be set far back from Carroll Creek. Specifically the building impacts the location of the conference center facility for the hotel.

Retention of the Birely Tannery will be a significant deterrent to the major improvement program, and it will make the (hotel) project infeasible. 

COMMENT: The applicants walked into this historic preservation minefield with open eyes. They chose this site with the knowledge it contained two historic buildings in a historic district. They knew that demolition of historic buildings is a big deal. They may have been misled by the “extensive historical studies” they say they commissioned, but they are responsible for choosing the consultants they chose. The City has no excuse. It was offered a proposal on the Galleria site, close by, which was clear of any buildings. But in their bizarre scoring scheme the City’s selection committee gave Plamondon points for historic preservation, and his competitor Wormald none! The co-applicants want the Historic Preservation Commission to save them from their own mistakes.

Lastly, the former FNP (Frederick News-Post) property in its current condition has been largely vacant since they moved to their new suburban plant several years ago. The owner has tried to market the building in its current condition to a variety of tenants and developers. However this proposed infill development is the only  proposal to develop the property to its  fullest potential, resulting in overwhelming benefits to community… (there follow the well known gross ‘impact’ numbers from friendly consultants — 280 new jobs, $25m in ‘economic impact,’ claims of bringing a bonanza of follow-on investment, more visitors etc.)

COMMENT: The site lay vacant after the newspaper went suburban because the owners were asking too much for it. For about the past five years it has been vacant because of Plamondon’s contract to purchase at financial close with the City.  There is a proposal to use the site for a creative arts center focussed on film making, which would make use of the two historic buildings on the site and do infill construction also. The Birely could be used to house a county museum of 19th century manufacturing industry.

Also plans, photographs

HPC17-490 also consists of plans of the site, photographs of the Birely from different angles outside and inside. The inside pictures show graffiti and clutter but roof rafters and floor joists in good condition. The outside pictures show the brick walls in good condition too.

Otherwise the submission contains the Kann Partners submission on behalf of Plamondon to the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) last fall, most of which was rejected by MHT. We understand a new submission to MHT was made June 21.

FINAL WORD: The core function of any historic preservation regulator is to protect buildings of this caliber. Historic preservation has evolved, questionably in my opinion, into heavy-handed micromanagement of the design of whole swathes of city development in many jurisdictions, not least Frederick.  And it has become very unpopular among a significant segment of the residents, resentful of its capricious petty tyrannies. But historic preservation began as a broadbased movement to protect ‘landmark’ buildings — those of unusual interest and historic importance. Its political legitimacy and viability depend on it continuing that protection of landmarks like the Birely Tannery.

The project has been given four HPC case numbers:

HPC17-489 request for demolition of the southern press building addition to the Railway Terminus or Trolley building

HPC17-490 request for demolition of Birely Tannery building

HPC17-491 Level 1 application for approval of the New Hotel

HPC17-492 proposed Rehab of Railway Terminal building, northern segment of old Frederick News-Post  building

Plus there is a set of pictures of the site as-is

All these and links to older documents on the hotel project are here

CORRECTION: the first version of this post described two co-applicants aspiring hotel developer Plamondon and the City of Frederick. Omitted was the third applicant 200 East Patrick LLC, a Randalls’ family company.

PSam 2017.06.29

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