The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and its extreme-preservationist allies suffered a major blow May 1 when the Mayor and Board voted down a move by to extend its powers to the derelict Coca Cola property at 1705 North Market. The rebuff to the historic Commission came after three hours of discussion including impassioned pleas from the Commission chairman Scott Winnette and some of its strongest local supporters. It was the first attempt by the Commission to spread its power beyond the downtown historic district since the City’s longrange comprehensive plan listed some 30 sites external to the downtown district that might be brought within the Commission’s jurisdiction – which is achieved via a legal amendment to zoning maps called a ‘historic preservation overlay’ the sense being that historic preservation controls are overlaid on top of other zoning such as allowance uses and densities.
The vote of the five city aldermen on the HPC bid was three against (O’Connor, Bokee, Dacey) to two supporting (Kuzemchak, Russell), but Mayor McClement made clear he also opposed the HPC move. It lost in effect four to two.
The issue arose because apartment/condo developer Tricia Beisler of Catoctin Overlook LLC in Leesburg VA has a contract of purchase on the 4.9 acre property which has been empty since the Coca-Cola company consolidated operations in Hagerstown in 2008. She wants to make the street facade of the building with its 1948 art deco detailing the signature frontage of a 4-story 98 unit apartment/condo complex to be built behind. Beisler who says she “loves Frederick” and already has smaller making real estate investments here was attracted to the property by the look of the long abandoned Coke building, seeing in it an opportunity for creative reuse of an industrial landmark. The project also fits the City’s policy of encouraging infill – greater use of existing infrastructure as opposed to outward development.
Beisler hired national architects to do designs, and submitted sketch plans earlier this year (see nearby.) They show complete demolition of the warehouse/garage building at the rear to make space for new construction of a 4-story wing of walk-up apartments. The streetfront building that people see as they drive past on North Market St is to be incorporated into a reception area, meeting rooms, exercise/club and possibly some small commercial space. A swimming pool for the complex would be built between the new and old construction.
Beisler recounted her frustration with City staff, especially HPC staffer Lisa Murphy (see separate report) who although they never spoke at length gave her the clear sense her plans would meet strong opposition at the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).
Given its mix of rehabilitation, reuse and new construction on a tight site the project is inherently difficult to pull off. With the time lines extended by the city’s historic preservation permitting process and uncertainties about the HPC’s willingness to accept her plans, Beisler said a Mayor & Board decision to grant of control of the site to the HPC would kill the project for her.
She told the mayor and board bluntly:
“The decision tonight will determine whether Catoctin Overlook and I will be the stewards of this (property.)”
Her contract of purchase with Coca-Cola had been written to ensure her the right to walk away if the City put the HPC in bed with her.
City of Frederick officials cold, ‘Process’ driven, uninterested in cost and wanting-it-all
Beisler said she’d received several estimates of the extra cost involved in taking the Coca-Cola site through the Frederick historic preservation process: “They are all well into the six figures.”
Second, the Commission and staff clearly wanted the back buildings kept, she said, despite their terrible condition and lack of much by way of distinctive association with Coca-Cola styling.
Third, the unwillingness of the HPC to consider financial viability as part of its proceedings, Beisler said, was another poison pill that would come with HPC control of the site via an ‘overlay.’
Said Beisler: “We can all debate almost endlessly on the appropriateness of an (historic preservation) overlay process based mostly on subjective opinions about history and architecture (and the role of government.) But what is quantifiable and therefore not subjective is the amount of time and money an (historic preservation) overlay would add to this project….(It) would make the project financially unviable…”
“In addition our request for a workshop and attempts to find common ground have all been denied. We have no reason to believe the HPC or the City’s historic planning staff would make any good faith effort at collaboration. Plus those groups have repeatedly stated that it is not in their purview to consider the condition of the property or costs associated with repair when making their decisions.”
Developers have to be sensitive to financial viability, she said, or they won’t be around to take responsibility.
“Preservation requires ensuring that a property is functional and sustainable for the future as well as protecting and honoring its past. We believe our plan for repurposing the Coke plant for multifamily housing does just that.”
Four of six City elected officials said they thought Beisler’s proposal was an opportunity to be seized, even if some of them were reluctant to break with “The Process” or even to rebuff the HPC. A first rule of Frederick City political etiquette is that the hard work and good intentions of absolutely everyone else in city government must always be affirmed and reaffirmed, especially before declaring “reluctantly” ag’in em. (Only other places, it seems, have unworthy opponents: bunglers, prima donnas, empire-builders, slackers, spongers, shysters etc.)
The two voting in favor of the HPC overlay Alderman Donna Kuzemchak and Alderman Kelly Russell both said their decision was “difficult.”
Kuzemchak: “History doesn’t stop with downtown and there are many different parts of history. For the Coke plant really is part of the history of Frederick… I do believe it is historically significant.”
It was a difficult decision, she said because she believed in the “honesty” of the developer and her preservationist intentions for the Coke building. But she had seen “things happen” in the past which “make me have to put things into lock.”
Alderman Kelly Russell said she concurred with Kuzemchak but also said the overlay was needed for “consistency with the comprehensive plan and with Planning Commission and HPC recommendation.” Another vote for The Process.
Alderman Phil Dacey said reasonable people could disagree about what is historically “significant” one of the tests in the City code. He believed there needed to be a “higher bar” for extension of HPC control outside the historic district since the property owner was being asked to cede rights to preservationists – whereas property owners within the district had bought in knowing their rights were already ceded.
Dacey said for him the decision was not difficult: “We have property owner that is willing to preserve the piece of the property that most people want.” He called the Catoctin proposal “the kind of development we want to encourage…an infill development of a property that has been vacant and blighted…Here we have an opportunity to do something productive with it.”
He was “saddened” by the thought that the City might lose the opportunity and discourage other such preservation and development proposals through subjecting them to the historic preservation commission process: “Hopefully we can come to an arrangement where this goes forward.”
Alderman Michael O’Connor said he saw the crux of the issue as the fact that “there are many ways in which something that is historic can be preserved.” The hearing had established that the new owner of the property wanted to “substantially” preserve the building, so the HPC overlay was not needed for preservation: “I have to believe that is true, that the people who have come to this podium and testified to that fact are honorable and that their words mean things.”
In this case it was clear, O’Connor said, that preservation would be better served without an HPC overlay. He also expressed concern at extending HPC control over ‘isolated’ properties one by one, saying this was a ‘piecemeal’ approach.
O’Connor made an observation about the uncertainties generated by Frederick’s historic preservation process for purchasers of property under a historic preservation overlay: “You cannot have certainty and discretion. Those two things cannot exist side by side. And our guidelines are just that (discretionary). It is a discretionary process.” (Permits being very much at the discretion of Commissioners, as opposed to being clear rules.)
Alderman Josh Bokee said he was concerned that the HPC process was failing to generate solutions and was discouraging projects the city needed. He said the City had failed in being unable to respond coherently to reasonable proposals for an alternative to full HPC control: “We haven’t even as a City yet considered other options, like would an easement work.”
Bokee said he wanted to “look at” the whole process of historic preservation review. He was concerned that the 50 year test for dubbing buildings ‘historic’ was sweeping in “too many properties” and subjecting them to the HPC.