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Historic districts proliferate as city considers changes

1 in 3 Baltimore buildings is on the National Register of Historic Places, more than any other U.S. city.

The city is retooling its historic preservation program as rehabbing older properties becomes increasingly popular and the number of historic districts expands.

Few want to do away with the districts, where property owners are eligible to apply for valuable tax credits. But many developers want to see updated historic preservation rules and less cumbersome oversight of the protected areas.

The Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation plans to spend the next year updating the guidelines that govern projects in the city. It also expects to present a rewrite of its own mandate to the City Council in the coming weeks, the most significant overhaul of the body since it became part of the Planning Department in 2005.

Tom Liebel, an architect and the chair of CHAP, said he hopes the changes make it "easier to do good projects and make it more difficult to do bad projects."

"Our goal is to be a positive force for preservation in the city and not be seen as obstructionist because we're getting dragged in at the tail end of the conversation when people find out too late what's going on," Liebel said. "The goal is not to fossilize the city in amber but rather to make use of our great historic structures as a springboard into the future."

The changes include limiting the length of time a property can be considered for landmark status, as well as creating a list of potential future landmarks and historic districts to help developers avoid fights like the one that erupted over the demolition of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. (CHAP placed the theater on a "special list" after a developer applied to tear it down for apartment towers, delaying the demolition two years until last September.)

The overhaul comes amid a rapid increase in historic projects.

CHAP staff approved 440 historic tax credit applications and certified 306 projects last year. That's more than double the rate in 2006, when 204 applications were approved and 88 finished projects were certified.

Meanwhile, the value of the city tax credits has exploded from an estimated $84,000 in 1998 to a projected $8.1 million for the fiscal year that ends in June. The state has awarded historic tax credits worth $262.6 million to Baltimore City since 1996.

Increased participation is not driving the changes, said City Councilman Bill Henry, who serves on CHAP and wants the commission to have more flexibility in how it enforces the rules, particularly for homeowners.

"There's an interest in having more wiggle room," he said.

Baltimore has a distinguished record on preservation and is home to some of the earliest National Register historic districts in the nation, including Fells Point (1969), Federal Hill (1970) and Mount Vernon Place (1971).

The districts have since proliferated.

The city counts about 65 National Register historic districts, with roughly half recognized since 2000, including two — Brewers Hill and a few blocks near the East Baltimore Development Inc. zone — in December. Another four are under review.

The city also has 33 local historic districts, which often overlap with the national zones. In the local areas, changes to properties must comply with guidelines enforced by CHAP. In the National Register districts, changes do not require approval unless a property owner seeks an historic tax credit.

The city stopped accepting new local historic districts in 2010 because it didn't have enough staf to review changes, said Eric Holcomb, CHAP's executive director.

But the state and National Park Service rarely deny applications for the less restrictive national districts, said Peter Kurtze of the Maryland Historical Trust, which oversees the state's nominations for national districts.

More than 65,000 properties, or roughly one in three buildings in the city, are now listed on the National Register, according to a recent report by the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which examined ways to ease the repurposing of the city's historic buildings. That's more than any other city in the nation, it said.

"We haven't nominated the entire city yet, but we're pretty close," Kurtze said.

The historic tax credits can be desirable for developers and homeowners.

The 20 percent federal historic tax credit applies only to income-producing properties, but the state offers a 20 percent credit to homeowner and commercial projects worth more than $5,000. For commercial properties, projects go through a competitive process, with a maximum $3 million award.

The city's historic tax credit program locks in property taxes for 10 years at the structure's pre-improved value for projects worth less than $3.5 million.

Advocates say the credits are crucial to spurring reinvestment in city neighborhoods. Claimants of the city credit have invested about $722 million in about 2,047 finished projects since 1996, according to CHAP.

"Wherever there's revialization going on, the reuse of older buildings and the use of these incentives is part of the story and in many cases is the key part of the story," said Jim Lindberg, senior director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation Greenlab, who worked on the ULI report. "These are buildings that really make up great neighborhoods. I think that's what's attracting people back to these cities."

The city program also keeps homes affordable, expanding the pool of potential buyers in a city with high property taxes.

"There's certainly a strong increase in value and marketability with a home that has the … credit," said Brooke Kaine, head of the local chapter of the Maryland Building Industry Association, who worked to establish the Brewers Hill district.

But the districts' benefits come at a cost.

During debate last year over a two-year extension of the historic tax credit program, the city's budget office expressed concern about the size of the tax breaks. A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake referred questions about the program to the Planning Department, which defended the program.

Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur said that the tax abatement expires after 10 years, meaning renovated properties will return to tax rolls at full value.

"It certainly has spurred an awful lot of investment in the city that's obviously a winner for the long term," Stosur said. "It may … cause some concerns year to year, but it looks like we're out of the big deficit era, so I would hope those concerns diminish too."

Some developers and homeowners also criticized the program, citing unpredictable, lengthy reviews for projects and overzealous enforcement in the local districts that can inhibit property maintenance by making it unaffordable.

Building and energy codes sometimes conflict with preservation requirements and older properties rarely comply with handicapped accessibility rules.

Travis Lauchman of Charm City Builders said his firm almost automatically seeks the credit when it rehabs a home in an area such as Fells Point, but "a lot of the developers think it's a burdensome process."

In local districts, the scrutiny affects projects whether or not a resident wants to claim a tax credit.

Design firm owner and Maryland Institute College of Art professor Anthony Rutka sought permission from CHAP in February to remove a decorative rim from a rowhouse he and his wife own in Washington Hill, a move that he said would fix water drainage problems and re-create the flat, Federal-period look the house had when it was built in the 1800s.

CHAP ruled 10-2 against the change, arguing that the ornate façade told a story of a former owner's prosperity and should be maintained.

"We thought it was a good idea to remove it because it's just causing problems," said Rutka, who purchased the property in 1982. "They thought otherwise, which really surprised me."

Rutka said the decision seemed arbitrary, especially in light of other changes approved nearby, including large parking garages to serve the nearby Johns Hopkins medical campus.

"It's just so hypocritical that they nitpick a cornice but they let somebody do something like that," he said.

Without "rational" interpretation of preservation rules, the city risks becoming its own Colonial Williamsburg, said Al Barry, a former city planner who now owns AB Associates and lobbies the city on behalf of developers.

"In some respects, the city has tens of thousands of these houses everywhere, and does every last one of them have to be saved?" he said.

The ULI report issued in November examined ways to ease the repurposing of the city's historic buildings. The report called on the city to pass its new zoning code and proposed a system of tiered historic credits, which would reimburse projects at different levels depending on the extent of historic compliance, among other ideas.

A group of city officials from different departments is looking at the recommendations. CHAP already was working on many of the issues raised by developers, Stosur said.

For example, the city in August approved a change to allow the replacement of home parts contaminated with lead paint, rather than the costly removal of the paint. Such work, however, still requires the full commission's approval.

The city has to uphold national standards when it comes to federal and state tax credits, Stosur said.

"We're … trying to be more customer service-oriented, but it doesn't change the standards we apply," he said. "I think it's just catching up with the technology and best practices."

nsherman@baltsun.com

Historic Baltimore by the numbers

National Register Historic Districts: 66

Baltimore City historic districts: 33

First National Register District: Fells Point

Most recent National Register District: Brewers Hill and Berea-Biddle Street Historic District

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