The longtime head of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, who oversaw its fight to protect the city’s old structures for more than three decades, announced her retirement Tuesday.
Kathleen Kotarba, a 1975 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, began her 38-year tenure in city government in 1974 and has served as CHAP’s executive director since 1981.
During that time, the commission named 21 of the city’s 33 historic districts, identified 127 of the roughly 180 Baltimore City landmarks, restored the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, established a popular city tax credit for historic restoration and launched a program focused on conservation of the city’s monuments, among other achievements.
CHAP Chair Tom Liebel said Kotarba brough a wealth of institutional knowledge to her role, and through her work, helped retain the past that makes Baltimore unique.
“It’s sort of hard to say any one key thing because she’s done so much,” said Liebel, a principal at Marks, Thomas Architects. “She is the institutional memory of CHAP at this point.”
Kotarba’s office also contributed to economic development, he said. The city estimates that the historic tax credit has generated over $620 million of investment in Baltimore neighborhoods. In 2013 alone, CHAP’s preservation planner administrator approved 445 new applications and 291 final certifications for it.
“Kathleen has been instrumental in Baltimore’s leadership with historic preservation policies,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. “We are all beneficiaries of Kathleen’s longstanding dedication and professionalism, and Baltimore will continue to benefit for decades to come.”
Kotarba, who will step down in March, worked through fluctuations in the agency’s status.
In the early 1990s, budget constraints left her the commission’s lone paid staffer for a time and in 2005, the once independent agency was placed under the purview of the Planning Department.
In August 2012, the commission held a closed-door meeting to consider her ouster, on which the commissioners ultimately declined to vote. Some preservationists said at the time that CHAP’s work on the Read's drugstore in the west side's Superblock development project, the Morris Mechanic Theatre and the Edgar Allan Poe House was discussed at the meeting. City officials declined to comment, saying then that it was a personnel matter.
On Tuesday, Planning Director Tom Stosur said Kotarba notified the department of her intention to retire about one week ago. He praised her as a “tireless advocate” for preservation in Baltimore, which today has one of the highest number of historic properties of any city in the nation.
“Her decades of leadership at CHAP have placed our city in the top tier of cities nationally for the preservation of history-rich neighborhood fabric and cultural assets,” he said. “Through Kathleen’s ongoing stewardship, preservation in Baltimore has moved far beyond individual landmark buildings to a wide array of local and national neighborhood designations, restoration of historic parks and monuments, development and promotion of heritage tourism, and sensitive integration of new development into our historic fabric.”
Liebel said the city will conduct a nationwide search for her replacement and hopes to name a new executive director by mid to late spring.
“She is irreplaceable,” Liebel said. “But our goal in finding her replacement … is to find a candidate with extremeley strong skills who will be able to take Kathleen’s legacy and move it forward.”
Kotarba could not be reached for comment.