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As Long as We Remember...

April 1, 2005

Destroying The City In Order To Save It – Part I

Chris Charuhas

A big issue in Frederick these days is historical preservation. A growing number of citizens fear and loathe the way the Fredericktown Historic District is managed. These citizens are onto something. Frederick’s current preservation policy makes it difficult to renovate old buildings, while destroying the culture that makes downtown Frederick unique.

A few weeks ago, the city held a hearing to propose annexing new streets to the Historic District. With only a couple days’ notice of the hearing, a hundred people who live on these streets showed up to say basically, “No way. You’ll put our streets in the district over our dead bodies.”

I’ve heard a lot of similar sentiments when talking to people downtown. From former HDC commissioners to downtown merchants; from new arrivals to fifth-generation Fredericktonians; the one thing they all tell me is that they detest the Historic District Commission. I have yet to meet anyone outside City Hall with anything nice to say about the commission.

I don’t share that opinion. In fact, in dealing with the HDC over the past several months, I’ve found its members to be earnest and fair-minded. At the risk of seeming Pollyanna-ish, I’ll say that I like ’em. I believe that they want to do the right thing. The problem is that Frederick’s current system of historical preservation makes it difficult for them to do that.

Frederick’s Historic District is managed according to a set of preservation guidelines. Guidelines are flexible, by definition. But if the HDC interprets and employs them flexibly, its decisions are regarded as arbitrary and inconsistent. It gets accused of favoritism.

So it employs these guidelines as hard-and-fast rules. Although the guidelines say "should," the HDC says "must." It interprets these rules strictly, to avoid establishing precedents that would weaken protections for historically valuable buildings.

Unfortunately, these preservation rules inhibit the renovation of old buildings within the district, retard the revitalization of its run-down areas, and prevent its expansion.

How do the current rules inhibit the renovation of old buildings? By making renovations very expensive.

Right now, the rules stipulate “rehabilitation at all costs.” People renovating houses in the Historic District aren’t allowed to replace a house’s deteriorated parts if it’s possible to salvage them. They must rehabilitate these parts, no matter how much it costs. For example, if a window is badly deteriorated and costs $3,000 to reconstruct, then the owner must bear that cost, even if it only costs half that much to install an exact replica.

Under these rules, many residents who want to renovate their houses can’t do it – complying with the rules costs too much. Landlords don’t renovate buildings because renovation costs exceed the extra money to be earned from renting the renovated building. Property owners allow vacant buildings to deteriorate to the point at which expensive preservation is impossible.

How do the current rules retard revitalization of the Historic District? By slowing down the renovation that turns bad neighborhoods into good ones.

Neighborhoods improve when people buy houses there, move in, and start fixing them up. Several streets in the Historic District need this desperately. On Fifth Street, for instance, drunks fall unconscious on front porches. Street toughs yell obscenities at night. Pit bulls roam unattended.

But the current rules create a Catch-22 on streets like this: people who can afford very expensive renovations won’t live on a street with drunks and pit bulls. But people who will live there can’t afford very expensive renovations. Consequently, streets within the Historic District such as Fifth take longer to turn around. In the meantime, the houses on them continue to decay.

How do the current rules prevent expansion of the Historic District? By making it prohibitively expensive to live there.

The overwhelming concern among the citizens who jammed themselves into City Hall to fight annexation of their neighborhoods was cost. They said that complying with current preservation rules was cost-prohibitive. “I have a job, and I work really hard, but I can’t afford it,” said one woman, according to the Frederick News-Post.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the current preservation rules is the destruction of Frederick’s unique culture. Essentially, it boils down to money: who has enough to live in the Historic District under the current rules? Not families – they’ve got braces and shoes to buy, and college to save for. For not working and middle-class house buyers -- renovating the Historic District’s old houses is too expensive for them.

The only people who can afford to renovate houses in the Historic District under the current rules are those with lots of disposable income and no children to take care of: wealthy DINKs. These are affluent people with “Dual Incomes, No Kids.”

Some of my best friends are DINKs, but I wouldn’t want to live in an all-DINK neighborhood. It gets pretty dull. Take Old Town Alexandria in Virginia, for instance. Its residential streets are beautiful, but lifeless. There are no kids on bikes; no neighbors chatting; no old friends gathering at the corner diner. As for the affluent couples who live there, you don’t see them much. They spend lots of time at the office or traveling, doing the high-powered jobs that enable them to afford to live in Old Town.

In contrast to Old Town, people of all ages and backgrounds live in downtown Frederick. I’m a young entrepreneur, and I talk with the retired union carpenter who lives across the street. The retiree’s next door neighbor runs Frederick’s economic development office, and she gets to see the elementary school kids who live three doors down from me. This old-fashioned social mix is rare and wonderful and should be preserved.

Almost everyone wants protection for old buildings in Frederick. But almost no one likes the current rules set up to do just that. These rules not only hurt historic preservation, they’re destroying the culture that makes Frederick unique. To paraphrase a soldier in Vietnam, these rules are destroying the city in order to save it.

So the question is: how do we preserve old buildings in Frederick without turning it into Old Town with spires? I’ll answer that in next week’s article.

Woodsboro - Walkersville Times
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