A proposal to reshape City Dock in Annapolis is drawing criticism from traditionalists, who say taller buildings and other ideas to spur economic development could spoil the Colonial-era character and Chesapeake Bay views of the historic waterfront.
The dock is among the most prized pieces of real estate in Annapolis. But as the city considers the draft master plan for the area, the question of how to blend its past with the present-day desire for economic vitality is sparking controversy.
Gesturing at some two acres of parking lots at water's edge, Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen said, "People park and walk around, while their cars have the best view of the harbor in the city. I could easily see $100 million of private investment."
The draft plan, created for the city by Towson-based Jakubiak & Associates at a cost of about $155,000, is seen by supporters as a way to create a more vibrant City Dock for decades to come.
But critics see an attack on the city's historic district and its picture-postcard views — and, perhaps, even a death blow to the signature fall sailboat show, among the largest in the country.
Among the recommendations, the most controversial has been a proposal to allow taller buildings. The consultants propose allowing heights of up to five stories on some streets, though they acknowledge that large buildings on certain streets could "distract" from nearby architecture.
Current height restrictions in the district top out at 45 feet, or about four stories.
The consultants also propose removing as many as half of the dock's parking spaces and eliminating the traffic circle at the base of Main Street in favor of a T-intersection.
Chris Jakubiak, who led the consulting team, said new, taller structures could frame the existing vista.
"The principal reason for more height is it creates the possibility for more economic activity, and therefore more potential for redevelopment," he said.
But Donna M. Ware, vice president for preservation at Historic Annapolis Inc., credited strict height limits enacted more than a generation ago with "keeping the scale and character of the historic district to this day."
Grant Dehart, a preservation consultant who lives just outside the historic district, said changes in height restrictions would allow for new construction to become "the most visible buildings from Main Street."
"That is going to block many views of the bay," said Dehart, who serves on the board of advisers of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He and others fear that buildings could wind up being even taller that five stories.
Former Annapolis mayor Ellen Moyer said the consultants "ignored the assets of the city."
The appeal of the historic district, Moyer said, is its small buildings and architectural charm. She said the proposal would turn the waterfront into "Anytown, USA."
"It doesn't make sense when we have an international reputation as a different kind of a town," she said.
The city planning commission is scheduled to review the draft this week and to eventually make recommendations to the city council.
A council vote could come before the year is out. Aldermen could accept some ideas and reject others.
Cohen, meanwhile, said he'll submit zoning legislation to the council in the coming weeks reflecting his own vision for City Dock.
He said his plan would allow new development, but with building heights more in keeping with current standards. He said a zoning measure would have the specific numbers that the master plan draft lacks.
Cohen said he's heard the criticism from preservation organizations and nearby residents. "I don't want to see skyscrapers," he said
Some aspects of the draft plan have wide support. These include pedestrian promenades, green space and trees, and cafe-style spaces, which could have tables and chairs for visitors to gather and enjoy the views.
The consultants also call for the city to address infrastructure, with projects to rehab the bulkhead and upgrade stormwater management to curb flooding that routinely shuts businesses. Annapolitans now gauge flooding by the height it reaches on the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial on City Dock.
City resident Mary Grace Stelzig said the draft is a good start, particularly in its goals of reducing automobile traffic and increasing pedestrian access. The prospect that redevelopment would bring more to do at the City Dock is appealing as well.
"I like to think of this as post-automobile world," she said. "Get people out of their cars and they'll spend money."
Some merchants agree, but not all. The parking proposal to remove about 100 of the 199 spaces around City Dock has struck a nerve.
"The customer demands the convenient and affordable parking," said Sean O'Neill, president of the Annapolis Business Association. He said parking solutions must come first, lest shoppers flee to malls, plazas and the Towne Centre at Parole, where they can park for free.
Officials say they would try to make up for the loss of parking spaces. In the works are signs directing motorists to garages where spaces are available and where they can hop on the Circulator trolley to reach downtown.
Officials also are discussing what to do with the city's deteriorating Hillman garage behind Main Street, which has two years of service life left, engineering consultants have said. Costs to repair cracks and other problems could top $1 million; demolition and replacement would cost about $8 million.
Cohen, who envisions public-private partnerships for the revitalization, agreed parking is a troublesome issue. "The city has a burden to show it can do a better job of parking management."
The Ward One Residents Association is another group that worries about parking.
"When you close up those areas … those cars come into our neighborhoods to park," said association President Joe Budge, a member of the advisory committee for the master plan proposal.
Parking could be a factor in deciding the fate of one of the city's signature events: the sailboat show.
If new development reduces parking, show operators say, they won't have enough room for exhibitors and the thousands of visitors who attend. Visitors now park more than half a mile away at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium and ride a shuttle to the waterfront show.
"The amount of space is so reduced that the result is the amount of money we receive from the exhibitors will not be enough to cover the costs of putting it on," said C. Edward Hartman II, president of the U.S. Yacht Shows.
All sides say the plan is only a draft, and there's plenty of time for compromise. Cohen said he's confident the plan that's ultimately adopted will accommodate boat shows. Hartman is cautiously hopeful.
"Can this be worked out? Yes, it can," he said. "Will it be worked out? We don't know."
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