Lisa Mroszczyk Murphy (Murphy) the senior historic preservation officer at the City is being blamed by some for the serious setback the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) suffered May 1 when the Board of Aldermen voted to deny it control of the Coke site. The prospective developer Catoctin Overlook’s Tricia Beisler said she had initially been inclined to accept HPC jurisdiction via an Historic Preservation Overlay (HPO.)
But she wanted some reassurance that the historic commission (HPC) would accommodate her group’s approach.
Beisler said she got “literally zero response to my efforts to get feedback” after making contact with the City’s lead staffer Lisa Murphy.
She added: “I wanted to really discuss what was possible for the site and the buildings, not just what was not possible… at this point if I had had the warm and fuzzies, and the tone had been warmer, maybe I’d be more confident, but there has been nothing (in response from Ms Murphy.)”
Alderman Donna Kuzemchak – a solid liberal and supporter of the Historic Preservation Commission who voted eventually in favor of the HPC control at the Coke site nevertheless picked up on Beisler’s complaint at the May 1 hearing: “The applicant would liked to have (had) somebody say to her: The HPC is willing to work with her…Obviously that warm fuzzy has not gotten through. It hasn’t been there maybe at all.”
Commission chairman Scott Winnette said that he prided himself on being “the warmest and fuzziest chairs of the HPC.”
Polar opposites – Mr Affability vs Ms Windup Doll Clerk
There was some nervous laughter when Kuzemchak was talking of the need for City officials who present a “warm and fuzzies” welcome to preservation proposals Like Beisler’s, perhaps because it is not Winnette they get to talk to first but Murphy.
Winnette indeed has a credible claim to being a warm and fuzzy personality, but the contrast could not be starker between Winnette’s social ease and affability and Murphy’s grey pallor, flat tone of voice and vacant expressionless demeanor.
In the colloquy over Alderman Kuzemchak’s concern with Ms Beisler’s treatment both Winnette and Murphy claimed they were precluded by something they called “The Process” from any discussion with the applicant until the historic preservation overlay jurisdiction was in place.
Staff supposed to talk
It is true that Winnette and other commissioners are precluded from any off-the-record or ‘ex parte’ communications with an applicant – a legal safeguard against corrupt backroom deals. But there are no legal restrictions on staff like Murphy discussing an application, the legal point being that staff don’t make actual decisions, commissioners do.
Murphy’s stance was that “the proper time” for discussion was after the Mayor and Board had approved HPC jurisdiction over the site. By then of course she’d be in control and Beisler’s group would be subject to all the vicissitudes of HPC proceedings.
Murphy said: “It is an important distinction to make that the designation process is not a time to discuss potential designs for the building because the designation does not approve (or) deny any way a specific design…. If and when it does get designated that is the opportunity that the applicant would have to work with the HPC at a workshop and work more closely with staff, and I did explain this process in the very beginning that that would be the time and the place to discuss any potential plans.”
This is bureaucratese for: “I won’t show my hand until you are under my thumb. You only get to talk to me then.”
It’s a neat ploy – you piggyback on the Chairman’s ‘ex-parte’ excuse for non-talk.
The Process places no legal bar on staff discussion
There is no legal bar to Murphy providing feedback or “working with” Beisler at any point. Indeed the City often encourages people to “talk with staff” and they are supposed to provide the friendly approachable ‘face’ the City wants to give to newcomers.
Under the guise of a non-existent “established process” Murphy was playing a power game by stonewalling Beisler. Confident after unanimous votes at the planning commission and at the HPC that they had the Mayor and Board vote for control over the Coke site she decided it advantageous to advancing her agenda to wait.
It wasn’t to be (see separate report.)
But the case has raised further problems for Murphy.
Lack of trust
Beisler said she had already found Murphy untrustworthy. (She isn’t the first applicant to discover that. In my own much smaller case HPC13-229 Murphy repeatedly misrepresented facts and stubbornly refused to correct errors. PS)
In telephone conversation with Murphy Beisler had raised the possibility of an historic overlay covering only the front portion of the site where she wants to preserve the signature Coke facade. She told the Mayor and Board that Murphy had misled her in saying such a partial overlay was not possible.
But clearly partial overlays ARE legally possible.
In the current Belle Air Conley Farm case HPC14-100ZMA off Baughman’s Lane there has been bargaining and a Commission decision precisely over which area of the site will be subject to HPC jurisdiction (see nearby map Option 2 the partial overlay in red, the full site boundaries are in blue.)
Plus at the Mayor and Board meeting Murphy said that the Lincoln Apartments site in the southwest of the historic district (not to be confused with the Lincoln Condos near City Hall) there is a partial historic preservation overlay.
Murphy didn’t want a partial overlay to be even considered for the Coke site because that would cede control of part, so she told Beisler it wasn’t possible.
Murphy signaled her opposition to Beisler’s plans for the Coke site by telling the Mayor and Board it needed to be looked at as an integrated complex – a version of the extreme-preservationist we-must-keep-it-all doctrine.
Coke buildings are “well preserved”
Repeatedly Murphy has said the complex of Coke buildings is “well preserved.” She used this term twice (p3) in her staff presentation to the HPC dated April 4 (middle of p2) urging the HPC to apply to the Mayor and Board for the historic preservation overlay to give her jurisdiction.
It was picked up formally by the Commission in their unanimous vote to seek control of the site from the Mayor and Board (p2 of draft Ordinance.) She said again at the Mayor and Board meeting to decide the overlay that the complex was “well preserved.”
All this despite the fact that Andrew DiPasquale an attorney associated with efforts to sell the site over six years has strongly contested the characterization.
Three weeks earlier with Murphy present DiPasquale said with some drama waving the papers: “I have an engineering study that says explicitly that the building is dangerous, that the building is structurally unsound, and is not a candidate for repurposing or maintaining so I think for purposes of for purposes of health safety and welfare we should take the issue of the warehouse out of the discussion entirely.”
(2014-04-09 01:10:50 on the video)
But Murphy continued on regardless of DiPasquale’s effort to correct the record characterizing the buildings several more times as “well preserved.”
She also managed to stir some annoyance with flagrant scaremongering about the possible consequences of the Mayor and Board failing to give HPC jurisdiction via the ‘historic preservation overlay.’ The City she said would be forced to grant a demolition permit good for five years and the Coke building could go down at any time, she said.
The Murphy horror story conveniently overlooked several facts:
- that no one can do any work on the site until planning and rezoning requirements independent of the HPC have been completed, probably a 12 to 18 month process
- that the developer said the land was worthless to her company without the front building which her submitted plans show as retained, the demolition permit being requested only for the back buildings
- nothing in the ordinance prevents the City from writing the demolition permit for the back buildings only as requested by the developer, which would keep demolition of the front a violation of law independent of HPC jurisdiction.
City staff do NOT have to issue a carte blanche demolition permit. The demolition delay ordinance only says that a permit, scope unspecified, must be issued if the historic overlay is not approved, not that it must be carte blanche. That carte blanche claim was shameless deception in an effort to panic aldermen into voting for HPC control.