City staff have confirmed that the application by downtown hotel promoters to demolish the Birely Tannery is unprecedented. Never previously in twelve years of the City’s present demolition rules has any property designated of ‘unusual (historical) importance’ been advanced to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) for demolition.
In answer to questions the City’s Manager Comprehensive Planning, Matthew Davis emailed us: “There has not been a previous finding of ‘unusual importance’. The LMC (Land Management Code or City law) has had language pertaining to ‘unusual importance’ since its adoption in 2005.”
The unprecedentedly high historic value assigned to the Birely Tannery site — both the building and the surrounding site as a trove of archeological remnants — represents an enormous setback to the hotel project since the Historic Preservation Commission almost alway refuses to sanction demolition of any ‘contributing resource’ and the bar is set even higher for a ‘contributing resource… of unusual importance.’
Recall that Plamondon Hospitality Partners winning bid in response to RFP14J in May 2014 (p180) expressed breezy confidence that demolition would be approved: “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.”
Plamondon’s “extensive historical studies” that predicted so badly
You have to wonder about those ‘extensive historical studies’ Plamondon cited in gaining the contract with the City. What was their reasoning? What historical consultant put their name to such a mistaken assessment? Why haven’t the much vaunted ‘historical studies’ been produced? Did they even exist? Was their citation a crude fabrication? (The same goes for a traffic impact study claimed in the Plamondon bid to have been recently completed in support of traffic issues at the site. Refusal to release was explained with the excuse that the study was ‘proprietary.’ It all smells very bad.)
Far from being non-contributing as Plamondon’s ’historical studies’ had indicated, the Birely building was found by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) July 13 to be ‘contributing’ and ‘of unusual value’, as was the surrounding archeological site — in line with the Maryland Historical Trust earlier finding that that the site and structure are ‘contributing’ and of such importance as to be judged by that state regulator ‘Eligible for Listing on the National Register of Historic Places.’
The Mayor’s hotel advisory team fell hook, line and sinker for Plamondon’s deeply flawed historic assessment, scoring the Plamondon project on the FNP/Birely site 2 points out of 2.5 for design sensitivity to historic district versus 1 point/2.5 given to Wormald at the Galleria site despite that site being clear of any historic (or other) structure. So the blame for this fiasco spreads to both sides of this so-called public-private partnership.
The hotel boosters’ spin now is to try to change the subject from the huge blunder made in choosing the Frederick News-Post site for such a large hotel complex. And to refuse to acknowledge that that a project launched on the basis that the Birely site was historically non-contributing has suffered a huge setback at the hands of the designated State and City historic preservation regulators.
Frederick News-Post deferential mouthpiece
The Frederick News-Post (FNP), a deferential mouthpiece for the City hotel project in a piece of shameful journalistic malpractice reported Saturday merely that the historic commission had found the Birely ‘contributing’ historically, omitting the really newsy finding that it is now officially designated as both ‘contributing’ and of ‘unusual importance.’
The theme echoed in the FNP headline “Debate on demolition for hotel underway” is pure misdirection. In fact the designation of contributing is intended to shelve demolition as an option while the focus of debate is on alternatives that might allow the project to proceed without demolition.
The City Historic District Guidelines say p147: “The guidelines are intended to discourage the demolition of contributing resources; therefore they force the Commission to use a review process that is deliberate and thorough. (Read: Take many meetings.) Demolition will only be considered when all possible alternatives to preservation have been exhausted.”
“all possible alternatives” are now in debate, not demolition
So it is “all possible alternatives” to demolition about which debate is now underway, a debate in which the issues are questions like these:
Can various components of the hotel complex be rearranged so as not to encroach on the Birely building?
Are two motor courts, surface parking and all those complex driveways really needed?
Could the conference center be moved from atop the footprint of the tannery building to an East Patrick Street frontage? Or just across the creek to some vacant or underused sites nearby? Or why not have the meeting rooms along the promenades of the linear park west of the Tannery building, and hotel rooms fronting on East Patrick?
How about meeting rooms located in the General Engineering Company building at 59 S Carroll Street, temporarily in use as the Sky Stage? (see pics below)
Can the hotel be downsized to a more normal 120 or 130 rooms from 180 eliminating one of its wings, and requiring less site space.
Can some adjacent surface parking lots be bought for the hotel to allow preservation of the tannery building.
Does the City’s basement parking garage proposed under the hotel need to be 160 spaces, as compared to about 100 in Plamondon’s original proposal?
The legal requirements
Having designated the Birely tannery and associated archeological site a ‘contributing resource’ and ‘of unusual importance’ the governing section of the Land Management Code is Section 423(b)(6)(B) on page 18 of An Ordinance Concerning Demolition of Historic Structures
(6) Sites and Structures of Unusual Importance.
B. Plan to Preserve Site or Structure.
(i) If an application is submitted for… demolition of a site or structure of unusual importance, the Commission shall attempt to formulate an economically feasible plan with the owner of the site or structure for its preservation.
(ii) If no economically feasible plan can be formulated, the Commission shall have 90 days from the time it concludes that no economically feasible plan can be formulated to negotiate with the owner and other parties in an effort to find a means of preserving the site or structure.
C. Action on Application.
(i) Denial. Except as otherwise provided in subparagraph (ii) of this paragraph, unless the Commission is satisfied that the proposed construction, reconstruction or alteration will not materially impair the historic, archeological or architectural significance of the site or structure, the Commission shall deny the application for construction, reconstruction or alteration.
(ii) Approval. The Commission may approve the proposed… demolition if:
(a) The structure is a deterrent to a major improvement program that will be of substantial benefit to the City;
(b) Retention of the structure would cause undue financial hardship to the owner; or
(c) Retention of the structure would not be in the best interests of a majority of persons in the City.
1. City law gives the Historic Preservation Commission the right and responsibility to decide demolition or not.
2. The phrase ‘may approve’ demolition if… indicates there is no requirement or expectation in the law that demolition will be allowed even if preservation of the building is found to deter a major improvement program or because the majority’s interest is best served by demolition. And the Commission gets to decide, under the law, what is a major improvement program and what might deter it. Also it gets to make a decision on what course will be in the best interests of the majority of persons in the city.
Guidelines similar but more suggestive of demolition if…
The City’s Guidelines on p149 in a Chapter 11 titled Demolition have a slightly different wording from the City code. see http://www.cityoffrederick.com/DocumentCenter/View/497
B. Demolition is Discouraged
The Historic Preservation Commission was formed to preserve the historic district and its contributing resources and approve appropriate rehabilitation and new construction. When a contributing historic resource is demolished, a vital and tangible link to the City’s past is lost. This loss disrupts the historic streetscape and decreases the historical and architectural integrity of the entire historic district. The guidelines are intended to discourage the demolition of contributing resources; therefore, they force the Commission to use a review process that is deliberate and thorough. Demolition will be considered only when all possible alternatives to preservation have been exhausted.
H. Required Considerations at Demolition Hearings
A decision regarding demolition must be based on a complete application, including historical information about the resource and the replacement plan. In taking action on a demolition application, the Commission considers the following:
1. The degree of importance of the resource (see Chapter 1);
2. The proposed replacement plan for the demolished resource.
I. The Degree of Importance Influences Demolition
1. Resources of unusual importance are individual contributing resources that embody the highest levels of architectural, historical or archaeological significance. A resource of unusual importance must individually meet one of the Criteria for Designation in section 423 of the Land Management Code.
If the resource is of unusual importance, demolition will only be approved if one of the following pertains:
A. The site or structure is a deterrent to a major improvement program which will be of substantial benefit to the local jurisdiction; or
B. The retention of the site or structure would:
1. Cause undue financial hardship to the owner; or
2. Not be in the best interests of a majority of persons in the community.
Different emphasis: ‘may’ or ‘will’ approve
The Guidelines wording is more favorable to demolition than the Land Management Code (LMC). The LMC says merely that the HPC “may approve (demolition) if” whereas the Guidelines say that the Commission “will approve (demolition) if.”
Expect the hotel promoters to emphasize the Guidelines wording!
They will need to reminded that where there is a divergence the LMC, the law, prevails over the Guidelines which in the end are just a staff interpretation of the law.
Important link to Frederick Preservation Trust, materials on Birely Tannery: