The City of Frederick is in violation of Historic Preservation Guidelines (HPC) with its proposal (HPC14-991) to demolish the rear of 20 West 4th Street, a long unoccupied and blighted building that it is seeking ownership of in a delinquent tax case. The HPC Guidelines are clear that decisions on demolition must be based on a replacement plan. The City does not plan any replacement for the portion of the building proposed for demolition.
At their hearing December 11, 2014 the Historic Preservation Commission deferred a vote on the City’s application after it became clear there would be a vote to deny if the issue went to a vote. Neighbors expressed concern about the City proposal saying it would doom the building to continued deterioration. The City’s application was presented by Joe Adkins, deputy director for planning.
Under his proposal the City would get a contractor to tear down deteriorated roof and walls of the southern third of 20W4th which constitutes the southeast corner of the duplex building (20 and 22 W4th) exposing a party wall with 22W4th and also an internal partition wall to the weather. The owner of the abutting building 22W4th Harry R McLaughlin said he was deferring roof improvements until the matter was resolved.
An extension or part of the original?
Three commissioners indicated they were inclined to vote down the City plan without more information and a visit to the building. Commissioner Carrie Albee questioned the City’s Joe Adkins characterization of the part proposed for demolition as an “extension.” Lisa Murphy agreed it was most likely part of the original building – not an extension. Adkins was unmoved. He kept referring to it as an extension.
Albee: “That would be where I would be struggling (to approve Adkins’ application.) I understand it is in bad condition but if it is original to the building then I feel like we should keep it.”
Commissioner Rebecca Cybularz: “if it is just capped and the City doesn’t do anything about it then it compromises the next door neighbor and then you are losing two buildings.”
Commissioner Timothy Wesolek was also prepared to vote No, based on the unfairness of demolition to the neighbor: “I’m looking out for that guy next door that has invested lots of money in his house trying to make it better.”
Wesolek also wondered whether the former owner Allan Pickett might be able to “come back at us” legally if the demolition was approved before the City’s claimed ownership had been established through the courts.
Saving face for Adkins
Chairman Winnette quickly saw the unfolding fiasco and to avoid the City’s humiliation moved for a ‘continuance’ to the next HPC meeting, and a site visit.
The City’s Joe Adkins agreed there was no urgency about the demolition since the City cannot begin work until litigation by the former owner Allan M Pickett is finalized in the City’s favor.
Historic Preservation Staffer Lisa Murphy had given Adkins’ application the big OK, calling the deteriorated part of the building “non-contributing,” without any discussion of the “contributing” status of the building as a whole. Plus she said nothing about Adkins evading the Guidelines requirement that an acceptable replacement plan accompany the application for a demolition.
The Guidelines at Chapter 11 Demolition ( p147 to p150) state under section B. “Demolition is Discouraged.” The whole purpose of historic preservation guidelines is to discourage a quick move to demolition with a review process that is “deliberate and thorough,” adding: “Demolition will be considered only when all possible alternatives… have been exhausted.” (p147)
No replacement plan, no discussion of alternatives
Contrary to the Guidelines’ chapter 11 on demolition Adkins and Murphy provided no discussion of possible alternatives to demolition. Adkins may not have read or recalled the Chapter but his ‘historic preservation planner’ Lisa Murphy knows it well. She will recite its provisions to any private property owner wanting demolition in the flash of an eyelid.
A staffer asked to publicly critique her boss’ application and to speak under oath would normally have recused herself from a case like this, but Murphy here pandered to her boss with quite extraordinary disregard for the clear provisions of the HPC Guidelines. A whitewash!
“It can be rebuilt”
Michael Williams a professional engineer and resident nearby on West 4th spoke during the public comment period saying that the portion of 20W4th proposed for demolition can be rebuilt and that this is the best way to preserve the rest of the building. He said rebuilding later to preservation standards would be extremely difficult if the City simply issued a demolition contract as Adkins proposed. Valuable materials would be carted away to the landfill.
Williams said he had inspected the vintage 1895 building closely. Its construction comprises a mix of soft 19th century bricks on the inside and hard more modern kiln-fired bricks outside. Proper rebuilding would carefully segregate the different bricks, he said, and reuse them as they are used in the original.
Most of the building fabric of #20 and all of the larger attached #22 are in good condition.
More Guidelines disregarded
The rear of 20W4th Street is clearly a case of demolition by neglect. As Murphy’s staff report states: “The property was neglected under previous ownership and the rear wing fell into severe disrepair.”
This mode of deterioration by deliberate neglect is addressed by the HPC Guidelines in 11 C: “Demolition by Neglect: Contributing properties that are greatly deteriorated because of deferred maintenance will not be approved for demolition.” (p147)
This provision of the Guidelines appearing to bar demolition at 20W4th Street needs to be addressed by Adkins’ application! Staffer Murphy may have been attempting to get around the provision by describing the rear section of the 20W4th building as “non-contributing.”
But this is a circular argument that makes an absurdity of the HPC Guidelines.
The building as a whole is clearly a ‘contributing resource’ in historic preservation lingo since most of it, and all of it visible from the street, is a fine turn-of-the-century structure that helps define the historic district. If it becomes non-contributing and eligible for demolition because it is neglected then the Guidelines section 11C is directly over-ridden and its purpose is defeated.
The fact that one portion of a structure is non-contributing does not make the building as a whole non-contributing. The building as a whole remains contributing since it passes all three requirements: (1) helping “define the historic district (2) adding historic or architectural value and (3) built over 50 years ago in the district’s ‘period of historic significance.’
Adkins’ application says about one third of 20W4th is to be demolished. It calls this an “addition” but this is false, as conceded by his own staffer Lisa Murphy. The earliest maps show the present building footprint including the portion proposed for demolition.
The portion proposed for demolition is by all accounts an integral part of the original construction that comprised a duplex of the larger 22W4th to the west, the smaller 20W4th on the east side.
Under the City proposal the back of 20W4th is to be demolished as far as an interior partition wall. The structure remaining is to be stabilized with props, the exposed basement somehow boarded over, utilities capped. The building through the party wall, 22W4th, is to be protected from water infiltration apparently with tarps. And the yard graded to drain away from the building.
This stopgap fails to satisfy the Guidelines requirement for a serious ‘replacement plan.’
Williams and other neighbors are concerned that the City as owner will do no more than this stopgap at the back to relieve it of liability should a homeless person or other trespasser manage to get into the building and hurt themself. They think that the building under City ownership will continue unoccupied and blighted.
BACKGROUND: The state Department of Assessments and Taxation assesses 20W4th as worth $114,700 with the land $69,700 and improvements $45,000. But the City got the building for $19,729 in April this year paying accumulated state and county taxes in a sale in which there were no private bidders.
HISTORY: Pickett bought the property in 1982 paying $41,000 for it but for most of the time since it has been unoccupied. By one account he became deeply frustrated by the City’s permitting procedures and gave up on the house choosing to live elsewhere and allow the 4th Street building to decay. He is believed to have spent more on litigation with the City than on the purchase price and other expenses of the building combined.
The lot is 1,350sf, 20ft by 70ft approx. The house of 1,092sf comprises about 550sf on each of two levels about 35ft long by 16ft wide. Proposed for demolition is the rear third about 12ft by 12ft plus outside porches. The porches have rotted completely away.
There’s an unfinished basement under the whole of the first floor. At the rear parts of the building walls, floors and ceilings have sagged and fallen. With the back area of the basement partially filled with debris and rain water it is quite hazardous.
To the west is 22W4th the larger portion of what was built as the other part of the duplex. Owned and occupied by Harry McLaughlin 22W4th is in immaculate condition. To the immediate east however is the west long empty Carmack Jay Building as locals call it, the fiasco of several City attempts to get a downtown supermarket following the move of the original Carmack autoparts business to the suburban style service strip developments outside the City.
Earlier City fiasco – the prettied-up facade of the downtown supermarket that never was
The empty, also decaying Carmack Jay building looming over 20W4th is probably the major obstacle to its redevelopment and reuse. This bad neighbor presents a rolled rib metal wall 20ft high running right on the property line of 20W4th’s small lot.
Back in the 1970s it was considered enlightened and progressive to get car parking in the front of buildings directly off the street. So City codes demanded construction of the Carmack Jay building at the far back of the lot ensuring it would be a very bad neighbor to buildings nearby like 20W4th.
Maybe the City needs to encourage removal of the decaying Carmack Jay building by allowing high density mixed use development, services, shops on the ground level at the sidewalk on North Market Street. Located above could be a mix of apartments and offices. Access for deliveries and some at-grade or low parking would be at the rear or west side of the lot next to neighbors, who would then get some air and light.
Meanwhile sound historic preservation for 20W4th requires a rebuild to at least a solid building shell (roof, walls and wall openings) – as was done by Fitzgerald Heavy Timber with the Fisher Building at the back of West Patrick Street. The HPC would never allow a private property owner to do the cheap demo-&-covers job that Joe Adkins proposes on behalf of the City.
A letter from the longtime owner Allan Pickett to the HPC on the day of the hearing starts “Please be advised that I am the owner” of 20W4th and notes that he is contesting the City’s claim to have acquired ownership in the courts. He quotes his lawyer Paul Jorgensen of Middletown as saying he has “an excellent chance” of regaining clear title to the property in the appeals to higher courts. The letter asks for a ‘continuance’ (deferral) of the HPC hearing on the City’s demolition application, and asks the City to deal with lawyer Jorgensen.
We’re trying to get through to Jorgensen, so far without success.
- editor 2014-12-24
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