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As Long as We Remember...

April 8, 2005

Destroying the City In Order To Save It - Part II

Chris Charuhas

In last week's article, I explained how Frederick's current historical preservation rules aren't working. In this one, I'll explain why they don't work, and offer an alternative that might solve the problem.

Most everyone thinks the city's old buildings should be protected, but few citizens seem to like the way it's now done: through the strict employment of preservation guidelines that make renovations prohibitively expensive.

Many Fredericktonians I've talked to seem to think that the Frederick Town Historic District Commission's strict interpretation of its guidelines is the problem, but I don't agree. I believe the root of the problem lies in the guidelines themselves.

Frederick's historic preservation guidelines are based on those used by the National Park Service. While appropriate for a federal agency, these guidelines are unsuitable for Frederick. Here's why:

The Park Service guidelines stipulate "rehabilitation at all costs." They urge property owners to preserve every element of a building, regardless of the cost.

This "rehab at all costs" policy works for the Park Service because it has a budget of $2.4 billion, and gives out $35 million every year in historic preservation grants. Thus, the Park Service is both willing and able to spend big bucks on renovation.

For instance, a man who rebuilds old houses for the National Park Service told me that the Park Service spends up to $3,000 per window in restoring deteriorated windows.

There aren't many house owners who can afford $30,000-$40,000 window restoration jobs. However, "rehab at all costs" works in cities that give property owners grants to help defray the costs. For instance, Elgin, IL, reimburses citizens up to $10,000 for the cost of historic renovations.

This policy also works for affluent property owners who can afford high renovation costs. The National Park Service carpenter explained it to me this way: "Two groups can afford our kind of historic preservation: institutions and rich people."

For most Fredericktonians - families, working- and middle-class house buyers, and landlords - a "rehab at all costs" policy doesn't work. That's because the city gives its citizens no grants to help defray the high renovation costs this policy entails.

The very expensive, often unaffordable, renovations that result are what make current Historic District residents furious, and impel citizens in adjoining neighborhoods to fight district annexation tooth-and-nail.

The Park Service guidelines are unsuited to Frederick for another reason: they're heavily biased toward preservation at the expense of livability.

The Park Service guidelines are intended to preserve structures of high historic or architectural value, such as the slate roof on City Hall, or the windows in Barbara Fritchie's house. That's why they mandate things such as the retention of old windows, even if the windows' lead paint coatings pose a health hazard and their single panes make them energy inefficient.

Cities that follow the Park Service guidelines increase property values and quality of life, up to a point. These guidelines, strictly interpreted, have kept downtown Frederick from turning into a Rockville-like mass of high-rises, unwalkable roads, and strip malls.

But when these Park Service guidelines are strictly observed throughout residential areas, they depress property values and decrease residents' quality of life. That's because these guidelines, in sacrificing all other interests for the sake of preservation, make old houses unappealing to live in and unattractive to look at.

One need only take a walk through the Historic District to see this firsthand. House after house, architectural gem and humble dwelling alike, has old windows in poor shape, encrusted with lead paint. Many have storm windows installed for insulation. These ugly, ahistorical add-ons are cumbersome to raise and lower, and difficult to remove and replace as the seasons change.

A recent University of Houston study showed that strict preservation rules depress resale prices for old houses. It isn't hard to understand why. Would you rather buy a house that must retain dangerous, inconvenient, and ugly windows, or a house that can have them replaced?

I believe that a set of covenants would solve these problems. Not guidelines, but covenants-hard-and-fast rules for historic preservation.

These covenants could include provisions that allow property owners to undertake historic preservation without incurring financial hardship. For example, they could establish a threshold of "financial hardship" on a progressive scale. For a $200,000 building, hardship renovation costs might be 10% of a building's value; for a million-dollar building, they might be 35%.

These covenants could also balance preservation with livability. For example, they could give house owners a choice between reconstructing old windows or replacing them with modern, lead-free, insulated replicas of identical material and design.

Above all, these covenants should be written by the citizens of Frederick and their elected officials. Only by taking local conditions into account, through firsthand observation and experience, can the covenants reflect what Frederick needs to encourage historical preservation.

Other cities have adopted rules that make historic preservation more affordable and appealing. For instance, New Orleans' Historic District Commission compromises on approval of window and siding materials to accommodate residents' financial situations. The town of Salisbury, NC, wrote its preservation standards to make sure that they "do not become so onerous as to inhibit investment in the downtown area."

San Francisco issues permits over the counter to replace old windows with modern wooden replicas, and the city shines. Belmont, MA, has adopted a similar policy, and residents love the results. Here in Maryland, the City of Laurel has done the same.

Preservation covenants written by and for Frederick residents could preserve the Historic District as a vibrant place, make it more appealing to live in, and increase the historic character and value of its buildings.

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