A pathetic Historic Preservation Commission — OPINION

The performance of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) last Thursday night in approving demolition of the Birely Tannery was pathetic. The commissioners were snowed by the shoddy Plamondon/City sales pitch. They fell head over heels for the garbage-economics of ‘impact analysis’ and its claim of great new wealth and employment arising from the dust of the Tannery building. They showed no interest in querying falsehoods peddled by the applicants, no curiosity about alternatives, and, worst of all, no fidelity to their core responsibility for preserving historic sites and structures.

Their behavior throughout the workshops and the hearing was passive, fatalistic, so it was clear their minds were made up to approve the demolition long before.

Nitpicking ninny-tyrants
These are the same people notorious for their nitpicky stance toward individual citizen applicants and small business people in the downtown historic district, dictatorial over trivial matters like the thickness of the stiles of a window, stopping a lady on E 4th St from rebuilding an old concrete stoop in brick, whether someone on E Patrick is to be allowed to replace rather than repair wooden shutters, and how Jennifer Weinberg should arrange a display of paving in her front garden. In these kinds of cases the Commissioners are forceful in expressing their prejudices and opinions. Petty-tyrants, the lot of them, when the applicant wields no political or economic power, they leave the applicant in no doubt, they will impose their will fearlessly.

But come the Birely Tannery case and the HP commissioners behave like frightened bunny rabbits, saying almost nothing to interrupt hours of powerpoint monologues in supposed ‘workshops’ where there is normally discussion, give and take. The audience for the Birely demo case was stacked and packed with the project’s rah-rah brigade, many recent arrivals to the City, mobilized by mass emailings via the Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce but written by the City department of economic development.

This naive lot want there to be a downtown hotel, but they fail to see that the City effort is so ineptly managed, has extended over such a long period (8 years now) and still faces  such huge problems, that its concrete result has been to DELAY for years, and will delay for years more, the very downtown lodging that everyone wants.

Blithe disregard for the law
Plus the Commission clearly failed to fulfill its legal obligations in this case. Having declared the Birely building and site historically contributing and of unusual importance it was obliged by the Guidelines to consider “all possible alternatives” to demolition. To its shame it listened only to the developer’s alternatives.

The City’s consultants Pinnacle/OPX and JLL both assumed that the site would include the gravel parking lot of the Eagles and a good frontage to Patrick Street. Project director Richard Griffin has often discussed this, and there have been preliminary negotiations. But the hotel plans are drawn on the assumption that it remains a neighbor’s unattractive surface parking lot and accommodates driveways that make use of two easements.

The Birely Tannery could be saved by moving the conference center to that Patrick St frontage, a “possible alternative” the HPC didn’t even discuss.

Also the Land Management Code, or City law on this states: “the Commission shall attempt to formulate an economically feasible plan with the owner… for its preservation.” There was absolutely no attempt by the Commission to formulate any such plan for the preservation of the tannery.

The Commissioners listened passively to hours of sales talk from the proponents of the Big Marriott, and then said: “The applicant has demonstrated there is no alternative plan.”

What a farce!

A Commission serious about meeting the legal requirements would have asked the applicant about making use of the Patrick St frontage. And asked for a plan based on use of the parking lot.

Downsize: improve viability and stay the Birely wrecking ball

Downsizing the hotel was another obvious route to gaining a legally required “economically feasible plan” to preserve the tannery. The City RFP’s specifications for the hotel have already been departed from in several important ways, the biggest of which was the Mayor’s announcement in May that Plamondon would take over the cost of construction of the conference center, apparently in return for the City enlarging the basement garage and taking on the costs and risks of site work and foundations, presenting Plamondon with an engineered platform for the conference center hotel.

A completely new contract will be needed, so there was clearly an opportunity to formulate a plan for a downsized hotel that preserved the Tannery.

Matt Seubert a retired CPA for Marriott wrote the Commission saying that an 80 room, 8,000sf conference area would be more suited to the market for an upscale downtown hotel in Frederick. Downsizing would reduce costs and risks and be more viable financially than the ‘full service’ hotel proposed. Full service frills in-house are unnecessary in a diverse downtown area anyway. No discussion of that either.

The Commission failed utterly to fulfill its legal requirements in the case. Having declared the Birely building and site historically contributing and of unusual importance it was obliged by the Guidelines to to consider “all possible alternatives” to demolition. It listened only to the developer’s alternatives.

The City’s consultants Pinnacle/OPX and JLL both assumed that the hotel site would include the gravel parking lot of the Eagles and gain a good frontage to Patrick Street. Project director Richard Griffin has often discussed this, and there have been preliminary negotiations.

Grand Birely smokestack (pics by Crews)

But the hotel plans are drawn on the assumption that it remains a surface parking lot and accommodates driveways that make use of a Randall easement. The Birely Tannery could be saved by moving the conference center to that Patrick St frontage, a “possible alternative” the HPC didn’t even discuss.

The Land Management Code, or City law on this states: “the Commission shall attempt to formulate an economically feasible plan with the owner… for its preservation.” There was absolutely no attempt by the Commission to formulate such a plan for the preservation of the tannery.

The Commissioner merely listened to hours of sales talk from the proponents of the Big Marriott, and then said: “The applicant has demonstrated there is no alternative plan.”

What a farce!

Another feeble argument of the applicant was that no use could be made of the tannery building. They falsely claimed that the cost of bringing it up to modern code for stairs, ceiling heights, ADA standards etc were prohibitive — overlooking the fact that historic buildings are almost all non-conforming with modern codes, and renovation is routinely done that leaves them with low ceilings, doorways etc.

The tannery has never been offered for redevelopment because the owner has been contracted to sell it to Plamondon for the hotel. A serious plan to avoid demolition would have seen issue of a Request for Expressions of Interest in the building. And perhaps a Design Contest with a Prize to get imaginative ideas for its reuse. But of course anyone who thinks a Marriott is something to strive for just doesn’t think imaginatively. Marriotts are the brand of bland, of middle range, mediocre, mass-produced accommodations.

Garbage economics swallowed whole
Pathetic too was the Commission’s credulous acceptance of all the claims made for the hotel’s potential to develop vast new spending and jobs. $26 million in annual spending, $9m earnings, 280 jobs were trotted out yet again. They call this ‘impacts’ even ‘return on investment.’

So let’s take that apart again. Impacts measure the direct spending forecast to occur at the new establishment, plus the re-spending of that, often broken into indirect and induced activity.

Aside from the imitations of all forecasting (inaccuracies in base data, wrong assumptions about growth in demand, failure to get competitive responses right etc) the calculated ‘impacts’ of the new hotel  measure only activity at and arising from that hotel. They make no effort to account for offsets at competing hotels and event places.

The DHCC will (if it ever gets built) seek business wherever it can get it — local, regional and interstate. Only to the extent it gets entirely new business, people who wouldn’t come to Frederick County to lodge and confer except for the presence of a downtown hotel, will there be net economic ’impacts’ for the city and the county.

Hotel & meetings business is competitive

The hotel consultants saw the downtown hotel as competitive with about half the hotels in Frederick so there is no expectation that it would be a big draw on its own. Our lousy transport connections (congested 270 and 15) to the greater Washington DC and Northern Virginia area and especially to Reagan and Dulles airports make it impossible for Frederick to compete with much more conveniently located conference center hotels in National Harbor, DC, Leesburg, Baltimore and Bethesda. So for conferences and events any Frederick DHCC will be heavily dependent on local patronage. Thus increments of spending at the DHCC are likely to be heavily offset by decrements to spending at other local and regional hotels and event places. A wedding at the DHCC could be one less at the Ceresville mansion for example.

The on-site ‘impacts’ are heavily offset by reduced impact elsewhere because what generates hotel/event revenue is not the hotel offerings as such but personal, family, corporate, and government budgets for travel and events. One lodging place or venue being chosen is another, often nearby, that is not chosen.

If 10 percent of the DHCC business is completely new and attracted by the mere fact of a downtown hotel then the net impacts will be just one-tenth of those touted, or $2.6m annual spending, $0.9m earnings, 28 jobs. If they are only 5% then the #s are $1.3m, $450k and 14…

A major destruction program

Far from being a ‘catalyst’ for development this endless, ill-begotten

Top of the Birely’s fine smokestack (Crews photo)

City project has been a ‘contaminant,’ poisoning the ground and scaring off normal entrepreneurship and investment in lodging. Far from being a major improvement program, this is a major destruction and deterrence program, deterring private investment and destroying not only the Birely Tannery but also the credit rating of City funds, and the City’s reputation as a fair place to do business.

The pathetic behavior of the HP Commission in approving demolition of the Birely Tannery sends exactly the wrong message to potential investors. It says the Commission is more invested in getting along with a boondoggle’s sponsors than it is in its mission of historic preservation in a place where history is the major draw for visitors. 2017-09-18

 

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