HPC staff cave, recommend approval of demolition of Birely Tannery

The City’s historic preservation staff have caved. They are now supporting demolition of the Birely Tannery that they previously said is a ‘contributing resource of unusual importance’ to the historic district, and a building and site found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Plus the last tannery in  the state going back into the 19th century.

Released today the final staff report in HPC17-490 prepared by Lisa Mroszczyk Murphy and signed by her and her boss, manager of comprehensive planning Matthew Davis concludes: “Staff recommends approval of the (demolition) application finding that the structure (the Birely Tannery building) is a deterrent to a major improvement program that will be of substantial benefit to the City, subject to the approval and permit application for a replacement plan.”

The staff have done a 180 degree turnaround from their initial finding in


the staff report for the first July 14 hearing when they wrote that “staff finds the tannery and related archeological site are not only contributing, but are of unusual significance.” That staff report then cited the Guidelines on ‘contributing resources’ proposed for demolition: “Demolition will be considered only when all possible alternatives to (demolition) have been exhausted.”

The workshops saw consideration of “all alternatives” presented by Plamondon’s architect, Peter Fillat, but there was no consideration of alternatives independent of the applicants. The staff report for the September 14 meeting concedes this:

“Over the course of four workshops the applicant has presented to the Commission the various options that were evaluated by the design team that would have incorporated the Birely Tannery into the site’s redevelopment in a manner that would be both economically feasible and achieve the required goals of the hotel program.”

Implicit in this argument is that the “required goals of the hotel program” are cast in stone. In fact they were a mere wishlist of the City’s hotel advisory committee none of whose business members have done more than contribute to lobbying for public subsidies.

And indeed Pinnacle consulting said the specified conference center was larger than warranted by the size of likely events. They recommended a downsizing. Being a single story structure the size of the event space (or conference center) is specially important in fitting the hotel complex into the site.

The staff report neglects to consider the potential of a land purchase of the Eagles parking lot, as proposed many times. Or to consider that the City and the developer had several alternative sites without historic buildings they could have chosen.

So far from considering “all possible alternatives” to demolition as required by their Guidelines, the workshops only considered the developers’ alternatives. A rather big difference!

Reuse of tannery difficult
Barriers to adaptive reuse of the tannery are cited as low ceilings, changes of level inside, alterations required to meet ADA or handicapped requirements and fire damage. After describing the models, diagrams of the developer’s architect and the “documented program requirements such s number of rooms, parking, access, and critical adjacencies” the report says “staff concurs with the (applicants’) findings that there is no economically feasible plan to preserve the structure in a manner that would not significantly detract from (the Trolley Building), another significant historic resource and the historic district in general.”

Mistake on building codes

It fails to note the exemptions to these rules allowed under historic preservation practice. If modern building codes were insisted upon for all rehabbed historic buildings none would be rehabbed. They all rely on special exceptions to regular code requirements.

The staff report then turns to the three ‘outs’ in the land management code of 1. deterrent to a major improvement program, 2. financial hardship or 3. best interests of a majority. The staff simply accept at face value the claim by project proponents that this is a “major improvement program” although a better argument can be made that it is extremely wasteful and that the proposed public subsidies of a program taking seven years already in planning and design has itself been a deterrent to multiple improvements funded by the private sector that would amount to a real productive improvement program. Instead what we have is a major speculative project that might or might not end up a net improvement for the city, that is very burdensome because of the risk and upfront costs it imposes on taxpayers at three levels of government.

Stage cluelessness about PPPs

The staff report also misrepresents the project as a public-private partnership (PPP) listing the organizations that comprised the private sector members of the Mayor’s Hotel Advisory Committee — chamber of commerce, downtown partnership, major employers group etc — as somehow involved in a PPP. None of these have ever been proposed to participate in the hotel enterprise itself.

Northern wing proposed as conference center shown located on Eagles parking lot in Pinnacle/OPX study preserving tannery

There is no partnership proposed in the real sense of partnership, only in the flimflam sense of the propagandist salesman.

The hotel enterprise is to be the Plamondons’ purely private business built physically atop a City public parking garage, the City buying the land and bearing the expense and risk of difficult foundation conditions, as well as an unknown list of other project costs. Real partners get to share in any upside on  the profit side as a match for their outlays. Not here.

Site constraints “compelling”

The staff found “compelling… the unique constraints of the site and the challenges posed by any meaningful redevelopment.” They concur with the applicants view that redevelopment is unlikely without what they call a PPP (substantial public subsidies upfront.)

They note the Commission will “review” the replacement plan after approval of demolition, and that Maryland Historical Trust still has to “resolve adverse impacts” for demolition to occur.



report on vote that the tannery building and site are ‘contributing’ and of unusual importance, July 13:


first staff report July 10 for July 14 meeting




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