Original Published July 25, 2017
The Frederick Extra

By Donald Burgess

Frederick has reaped the benefits of thoughtful historic preservation over the last several decades, which has led to the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of many residential and commercial buildings—through investments by the city, county, and state in the Carroll Creek project and the core downtown area, as well as throughout the city. Most recently, it has led to the rehabilitation and utilization of the very significant Union Knitting Mills and the Monocacy Valley Canning Company buildings.

But true historic preservationists recognize that historic preservation is not about simply preserving architecture or buildings – no matter the costs, no matter the economic impact, no matter the need for a functioning and vibrant community, no matter the needs of other historic resources. Rather, it’s fundamentally about saving historic structures and encouraging appropriate infill that drives economic sustainment and growth while preserving the "sense of place" (identity) of a community and the character of its neighborhoods.  Kennedy Smith, former director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Program for two decades, and one of the nation's leading authorities on economic development says this about historic preservation: "It’s not about preserving buildings, it’s about preserving community." 

Nell Ziehl, from the Maryland Historical Trust, says that "historic preservation is not just about buildings, it’s about protecting the character of those places." Steve Knight, a prominent architect in DC, says that "preservation's concern is broader than saving or reusing single structures.  It is preservation on a much larger scale. It is about preserving the sense of place of a neighborhood."

Frederick, which is the second largest city in Maryland and a major heritage tourism destination, sees nearly 1.5 million visitors each year – yet it has no downtown hotel (there is no room in the inn, because there is no inn).  Frederick County has one of the most robust economies in the Washington metropolitan areas, is home to many large businesses, and sees tens of thousands of business travelers each year – yet it has no 4-star hotel.

It is clear that the proposed Downtown Frederick Hotel and Conference Center will be of great benefit to the city – generating jobs and tax revenue while enhancing Frederick’s identity as a heritage tourism destination. This project involves not only construction of a new building that’s appropriate for the city and its character (infill), but also the feasibility of preserving the Birely Tannery in an economically sustainable way.

The fundamental question before Historic Preservation Commission is “What decision will result in better preservation of the historic character of Frederick, better completing the community fabric, better continue the amazing revitalization that has occurred over the last decade or so, and better enhance the viability and the integrity of the historic district?”  

Encouraging economic sustainment and growth through infill

Economic growth is the primary catalyst for preserving existing historic structures and encouraging appropriate infill, which leads to investment and preservation of vacant buildings, vacant lots, under-utilized parcels, and distressed historic buildings in the community. Infill also fosters the renovation of significant historic resources that—although in fair-to-good shape—are still in need of improvement and modernization. All of these activities then spur further economic revitalization, both residential and commercial, resulting in new and expanded businesses, more job opportunities for residents, and increased tax revenue. Appropriate infill induces mixed-use development, increases housing stock, and even leads to more low-to-moderate priced housing.

The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office says that "Communities interested in protecting sense of place ... are seeking ways to revitalize commercial activity and take advantage of new development opportunities that promise solid economic growth."  The National Trust for Historic Preservation sees historic preservation on a much larger and broader scale than simply preserving architecture and just saving buildings.  The National Trust's Main Street program maintains that "Historic Preservation = Economic Development." 

The Main Street program is an economic revitalization tool – its primary focus is on economic development and revitalization of main street communities which then stimulates preservation of historic resources. 

The Downtown Frederick Hotel and Conference Center clearly qualifies as an appropriate, economically feasible, and sustainable investment in the future of historic Frederick.  It will continue the revitalization of Frederick which has been significantly driven by infill construction along Carroll Creek. A decade or so ago it was said that there was "a dearth of vitality along the Creek."   Creekside Plaza, Maxwell Place Condos, South Market Center, and the Board of Education building are outstanding examples of infill construction that have transformed the city and have induced the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of many residential and commercial buildings throughout the entire city.

Preserving and productively using historic structures

The disposition of the Birely Tannery building is more nuanced, but must be considered in the context of an economically viable plan for preserving and productively using the building. Jason Deem, a major developer and historic preservationist in St. Louis says, "If you preserve without intent for a building, you are just starting the cycle of decay again” and that "keeping historic buildings standing isn’t the point; it’s about turning them into places people want to use." Currently, the only plan under consideration for the building refers to a “Museum of Tanning History,” the operation and sustainment of which is not economically feasible. The capital costs to rehabilitate the tannery building and site and to establish exhibits plus operational costs would likely require a total budget of $150,000 to $200,000 per year.

This rivals the budget of the Historical Society of Frederick County—a very large and well-established organization with dozens of volunteers that has a much broader mandate than “leather tanning.” Those advocating today for “preservation” of the abandoned tannery building have had decades to develop a viable plan and pursue its adaptive reuse, but have not done nothing—demonstrating a lack of interest (until now) coupled with lack of an economically viable plan.

Where the rubber meets the road

Although historic preservation guidelines shape what infill and renovated properties look like, they are not a “magic wand” that CAUSES the preservation of historic resources to happen.  Economic growth is the primary catalyst for historic preservation.  Historic preservation is an economic and community development activity – sustainable and smart growth – framed in the context of historic resources.

The definition of a “resource” is a source that can be readily drawn upon and used. This definition applies to historic resources as well—there must be a concrete and economically viable use for a historic resource, or as Deem says, the cycle of decay will continue. If demolition of the Birely Tannery is not allowed, it is likely the building will simply be boarded up with a fence around it, sitting unused for another several decades just like it already sat unused for decades.  

Or maybe it will see some limited renovations, enough to become a storage building for auto parts or some other inventory.  These are  not historic preservation. It’s “kicking the can” and letting the next board or commission make the difficult—but necessary—call. This type of "pickle preservation” isn’t about preserving buildings; it’s an intolerance for change and an attempt at romantic nostalgia about relics. True historic preservation decisions are reality-based and made in the context of today. No wands involved. 

The bottom line

What decision will better preserve the historic character of Frederick?  What decision will better lead to completing the community fabric of Frederick?  What decision will better continue the revitalization of Frederick?  What decision will better enhance the viability of historic Frederick?