Under the previous owner the old C Burr Artz library building at 116 Record Street was headed to blight. The roof leaked so badly the tenants decamped for properly maintained digs and the main floor has been vacant for several years. So it was good news when James Roembke, head of a psychological services group bought the building intending to reroof it and rehab the interior. The reroofing and rehab work on the building wins him local plaudits. However Roembke’s landscaping activity has been a disaster.
116 Record is very prominent – not surprising as it was sited and designed as a public building. It has three street frontages, not just Record Street but Council Street and West Second Street as well. It sits on a long narrow lot that runs a whole block between Council and East Second St.
At the Council Street frontage there’s an attractive sunken garden that serves an otherwise underground condo in the south part of the basement of the building. That’s the home of Jerry Coates, an elegant realtor who has been around Frederick for ever. Another basement was rented to architect Clyde Berger. The building’s frontage along Record Street is long and about 12 feet from the sidewalk. There’s just room between the sidewalk and the building front for a half-flight of seven steps up to a landing at the main floor’s level. Built in 1937 the building was the county public library for nearly 50 years (to 1984 when the much larger East Patrick Street building opned.)
Clusters of healthy boxwood bushes on the Council and West 2nd St frontages provided year round greenery. You think of boxwoods as bushes but these were small trees really, they were so large. One speaker said they went back 75 years. Along with a Euonymus hedge on W2nd St they screened the building’s parking lot and other parts of the perimeter of the lot.
The boxwoods were all clearcut with a chainsaw to ground level and the Euonymus hedge was cut to the ground along W2nd St and heavily pruned back and lowered in height elsewhere by Roembke’s contractor. A previously screened asphalt lot and five or six parked cars suddenly dominated the W2nd streetscape.
A second de-greening was threatened by a public hearing notice on an application for a permit for removal of five Hawthorn trees along the Record Street frontage. Being over 12 inches diameter – just over – the HPC has to approve their removal according to City code.
The hearing on July 9 attracted a serious collection of local people, neighbors, who protested at the de-greening that had occurred, and opposed City permit for removal of the Hawthorns.
As applicant Roembke spoke first. He wanted to remove the Hawthorns because they are an eyesore. They were sickly, and an English species which couldn’t withstand the heat of a mid-Atlantic summer. Roembke wanted a more open look, a cleaner view of the front of the building. He’d plant a pair of dogwoods, perhaps Cornus Kousa, to replace the Hawthorns.
In discussion with commissioners he said he was open to planting more trees but preferred an unobstructed frontage. He only had a general planting plan at this stage since he is trying to keep his costs down.
I was the first neighbor to speak, The five Hawthorns in question are stand-in street trees, I argued, since there are no street trees planted in the normal place along the curb. Removing the Hawthorn swill radically de-green and unbalance the streetscape. The Hawthorns are in poor condition but it should be determined by a tree expert if they could be reshaped and treated. Hawthorns are hardy long-lived trees and if brought back to health they could provide many years of good service.
An alternative would be planting real street trees for canopy to match the street trees opposite. When these had grown to 20 or 30ft Roembke’s Hawthorns could be phased out. He would then get the more open appearance to the facade that he wants.
Mary Beth Pearce of W2nd St said everyone in the area was very distressed when the “huge” boxwoods and the hedge was removed, opening the view of the parking lot. Removal of the Hawthorns would make the problem worse, leaving the building looking like a bare commercial building out of character with the residential setting.
Theresa Michelle of Council Street said that she wanted to welcome Roembke to the neighborhood but very disappointed in the destruction of the landscape that has already occurred. She said that the clearcut boxbush next to her house was 75 years old and planted by the Garden Club of Frederick – back when the building was the City’s public library. On Record Street the proposed removal of the trees “will affect the streetscape tremendously,” she said.
“You have a property that affects three key streets in the historic district and I think (the removal of the landscaping) negatively affects those three streets. I would like to know what the overall plan is for this property before anything more is removed.”
Diane Dougherty opposite on Record Street said until now commercial and residential uses were mixed successfully: “We have shared plans in order to have a beautiful streetscape, and keep the historical (ambience.)”
“It is alarming what we are seeing….We are scared to death, that a lot of it is going to be parking.”
Dougherty invoked the Canadian pop singer of the 60s Jodi Mitchell and one of the hippie generation’s green themes reciting a stanza from the song Yellow Taxi:
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, until it’s gone.
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Dougherty concluded: “My request to the owner would be: Include us, share your plan, work with HPC and get a more detailed plan.”
Jan Gallard of W2nd Street condemned what she called “the destruction of the landscape” asking how this could be reconciled with the Commission’s objectives. Frank Downer also of W2nd Street said the five Hawthorns are “all we have” left by way of trees and shrubs and asked told the HPC: “It is going to ruin the entire street. Don’t approve removing them.”
Former HPC commissioner says “We reviewed changes like this…”
Dale Dowling a former HPC commissioner who lives on W2nd St wondered “How did we get to this?”
“When I was on the HPC we did review landscape changes like this. We were concerned about screening parking from the street and from historic areas. It was our concern when someone took down 75 year old boxwoods that were on the historic street. I don’t know what has happened with the review process here, what change occurred in the Guidelines that this is no longer the purview of the HPC to make decisions when in your mission it is stated that you are to protect the historic landscape and streetscape.
“What happened? Why aren’t we looking at this? Why do I have to look out my window or walk down the street and see what was beautiful boxwood, now a hedge that is torn out, the boxwoods are torn up and there is nothing but raw land and car (parking.)
“On the corner of W2nd and Record streets, half a block from City Hall in the most central part of the historic district of this city, the area that is the most photographed and most used to market this city and we have tree stumps. And now we have something before you to (take away) even more.
Dowling said most important was when the Guidelines and procedures of the HPC are reviewed that they should prevent “this situation” from happening again.
Roembke: “I’m sad I caused you such grief”
In response Jim Roembke said he was sad that he was meeting his neighbors this way: “ I’m very sad I’ve caused your grief, and I have hurt your view and your landscape. It has not and still is not my intention to It is quite contrary to what my intention. I am working to create a beautiful space. I have loved this street for all the years I have lived in Frederick. So I am very sorry because I had no idea the response that (we’ve) had.”
Roembke said he wanted to talk to all his neighbors: “My desire is to make it a more beautiful place.”
Commissioner Carrie Albee took up Dale Dowling’s point asking City staff: “Why aren’t we talking about the boxwoods? Is this how we interpret setting… there are all these references (in the HPC Guidelines) to setting, and landscape (and streetscape.”
Murphy: The HPC does not review plantings
Lisa Murphy responded that the Commission “does not review plantings… unless it is in the context of new construction.”
Murphy added that since the Burr Artz building was without any trees in front of it during its period of historic significance (1937 to 1965) it was appropriate to remove the trees.
“If you look back at the historic photographs of the building you saw the building….that (with trees in front) was not how the building was originally perceived. So in this case I think (the trees are) detracting from the historic architecture, not complementing it.”
Frustration with the Guidelines
Chairman Scott Winnette described himself as “a bit stymied by the Guidelines” which define ‘greenspace’ in a way that neglects the removal of trees. Greenspace is defined negatively in the Guidelines in terms of land not paved or built upon, meaning that a grove of trees can be bulldozed, shrubs can be taken out and replaced by gravel and there is no reduction in ‘greenspace’ as defined by the City’s HPC Guidelines.
Albee noted the guideline cited in this case by Murphy as ruling out review of planting had not stopped the Commission “spending a lot of time talking” about planting in another case nearby, another reference to Jennifer Weinberg at 107 Record Street, HPC14-884.
Commissioner Stephen Parnes said he was “troubled by the lack of clarity” in the Guidelines: “We don’t know what needs to be worked until we run into situations like this.” The Guidelines failed to answer the question: “ What (are) the criteria for keeping or removing landscape.”
City’s “green canopy” policy
Parnes addressing Roembke invoked a City policy to increase tree canopy citywide, which he said is “extraordinarily important.” He was “struggling” with the proposal to remove the Hawthorns because of his own sentiments and the green canopy policy of the City.
Commissioner Chase Tydings said he agreed with the criticisms of the tree removal. If they had been presented along with a plan for replacement then “some of the upset” might have been avoided. He urged Roembke to seek a continuance and to come back with a plan.
Roembke agreed to this saying he was more concerned about repairing relations with his neighbors than about the landscaping.
“I’d be happy to work with them and any members of the Commission, a workshop or whatever. I’m totally open to (different options.) I’d like to meet my neighbors and (get together) more of a master plan drawing that we can talk about as neighbors and then come back to the Commission.”
Staff report – the attempted wave-through
The staff report by Lisa Murphy on HPC15-449 attempted to wave through the removal of the five Hawthorns, checking both ‘Yes’ boxes for compliance with HPC Guidelines. It says the trees were likely planted shortly after the library moved out in 1982, making them about 30 years old. Photographs showed the building had no trees in front of it when completed in 1937.
Murphy’s interpretation of the Guidelines is that they only require preservation of “historic features” of a landscape and streetscape (p120). And require HPC review of proposals to remove trees over 12 inches diameter, but provide “no additional guidance” on preservation of trees.
Murphy in wave-through mode
This is Murphy doing a restrictive interpretation of the Commission’s powers, quoting just one page of the Guidelines in order to justify her wave-through. If she’d wanted to oppose the tree removal she could have quoted p118 under “B. Landscape and streetscape features that the HPC reviews:
“The Commission considers the potential impact of rehabilitation, new construction and demolition on the landscape and streetscape and on the setting of buildings…”
The review may include: “1. The rehabilitation, new construction and demolition of sites and settings, including but not limited to yards, parks, memorials, streets, alleys and parking lots…”
Plus on p120 under “F. Plantings and tree removals, 1. HPC review…” we have “The Commission must approve the following regarding plantings in the Historic District:” and here appears A. Removal of trees over 12” diameter B. Street trees (p121) C. Plantings for screening for AC and other utilities, D. Attached window boxes, and then a remarkably unbounded catch-all: “E. Other Plantings. Other plantings as required by the Commission.” (p121)
It is not great grammar: “The Commission must approve the following regarding plantings in the Historic District…Other plantings as required by the Commission,” but the intent is clearly to give the Commission wide power to dictate landscape work.
There follows a section detailing items excluded from HPC review: tree well plantings of annuals and perennials, removal of trees under 12”, free standing planters, window boxes, garden plantings. The last is the biggest exclusion: “E Garden Plantings. The Commission generally does not review tree, shrub, perennial and annual plantings, however in the context of new construction it must approve landscape plans including the full range of plant materials.” (p122)
The importance of the word ‘generally’
The ‘generally’ is of course an important qualifier. While the Commission does not generally review planting plans for rehabilitation (as at 116 Record) it is given the power to do so under the Guidelines.
Note that at no point is there any reference to reviewable plants being within the ‘period of significance.’ The age of plantings is nowhere spelled out as an issue.
The work at 116 Record Street certainly involves rehabilitation both of the building and its landscape and setting. And the HPC seems to be authorized, even required by the provisions on p118 to consider the impact on the streetscape and setting. And it has the authority, if not often exercised, to pass judgement on a full planting plan. (p121-2)
Within a stone’s throw at 107 Record Street these sweeping HPC powers were invoked by the same City staffer Lisa Murphy in an attempt to prevent a decorative paving project last year year (HPC14-884.) Six hearings and workshops and many redesigns were done of what Murphy insisted on labelling a proposed ’patio’ though it involved no change in grade and no concrete foundation. It was just the paving stones laid in stone dust with soil joints and ground cover. This small landscape job made zero impact on the streetscape. No neighbor objected. The 107 Record Street project was ultimately approved by the Commission this spring – with some small modifications to the planting.
Murphy’s argument for removal of trees
The heart of Murphy’s argument for supporting removal of the Hawthorns at 116 Record was:
1. “Although the trees have become an established part of the Record Street streetscape, they were not planted during the period of significance (over 50 years ago, 1965 or earlier) and are not associated with a significant event of national relevance.” end Murphy quote
The Guidelines ‘period of significance’ apparently applies to structures and parts of structures, but it is not clear whether or not this applies to landscape features. The seventeen pages of Chapter 8 “Guidelines for landscapes and streetscapes” have no reference to the age or historic status of plantings. Therefore Murphy seems to be incorrectly interpreting the Guidelines.
2. “The trees have also considerably changed how the primary facade of the building is viewed from the street.” end Murphy quote
True, but there is no suggestion in the Guidelines that we must aim to take landscape back to when the building was built. Only the museum school of preservation wants to recreate to some point in the past, and there is always then the issue of which point in the past you should aim for.
3. “Overall no green space will be lost by removal of the trees and…” end Murphy quote
Given the Guidelines peculiar definition of ‘green space’ this is technically correct. But it gives no weight to the contribution of the trees to the streetscape or to their contribution to tree canopy – shade and general greenery.
4. “…the applicant proposes to plant two new flowering trees which will contribute to the streetscape while improving the building’s relationship with the street.”
While the HPC does not ‘generally’ review planting plans except for new construction you could argue that 116 Record Street is the exceptional case where planting plans are a legitimate subject for regulatory review – because of the building’s public setting and prominent frontages to three streets. These make its three sides very much the public realm.
Plus Roembke has accepted this as necessary to try to make up with his neighbors.
Thursday July 23 the case comes up again at the HPC. Meanwhile there is apparently advice from an arborist that the Hawthorn trees have so many problems that efforts to reshape and treat them will be very costly and may be unsuccessful.