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News Opinion Editorial

Landmarks for sale

News that Baltimore officials are considering selling or leasing as many as 16 of the city's historic landmarks — including the iconic Shot Tower and the War Memorial Building — has sparked alarm and outrage among people who fear allowing them to fall into private hands could lead to the loss of a priceless historical legacy.

No one wants to see these magnificent architectural gems turned into fast-food emporiums or low-end strip malls. But if the city handles the matter carefully, at least some of them could be transferred in a way that ensures they will be well cared for and preserved for future generations.

City officials say their plan is to enhance the historic, publicly owned properties — many of which have been badly neglected over the years — and turn them into profitable enterprises. The hope is that not only will they then not be a drain on the treasury but that they might even produce a bit of revenue for the city's coffers.

MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakewants the municipal board of estimates to approve a $46,000 contract with an appraisal firm to come up with an estimate of what the city's landmark structures are worth. For that relatively modest investment, the city could reap substantial benefits if it turned out even some of the properties had commercial value. The board should act on the mayor's request without delay.

Even so, the value of many buildings won't necessarily be easy to realize. Many of the structures on the mayor's list are weather-beaten and tattered, with problems ranging from leaky roofs and non-functional heating and cooling systems to water-damaged interiors, boarded up windows and doorways and flaking exterior paint.

Almost all of them would need major refurbishing and repairs to make them attractive to potential buyers, and even then the market could be iffy unless the economy gets better. Plus at least a dozen of the properties enjoy historic landmark status, which limits the changes a developer or non-profit owner can make.

On the other hand, anything the city can do to reduce the expense for maintaining these structures would benefit its bottom line. And over time the savings would add up, giving the city a reservoir of cash to use for other purposes even if the buildings didn't turn much of a profit themselves.

That's why the best way to look at this proposal is not as a short-term fix but as part of a long-term effort to restructure the city's finances. Still, any move to sell these properties must be done in a way that protects their character. Any changes to buildings with landmark status would have to be approved by the Baltimore preservation board. It would behoove the city to secure that status for the few properties on its list that have not been deemed landmarks before any are handed over. Furthermore, private volunteer groups have spent considerable effort and money to preserve some of these structures. Any moves to sell them should be conducted in conjunction with those groups.

Clearly, any hand-over of historic properties would have to involve a balance between the needs of the group taking ownership and the city's interest in protecting a piece of Baltimore history. It may not be possible to achieve such a happy medium with all, or even most, of the buildings currently on the mayor's list. But it is an idea worth exploring.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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