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Preserving our past: Ownership isn't the issue

What is the future for Baltimore's city-owned historic properties?

The Baltimore Sun has reported that Baltimore City is hiring an appraisal firm to determine the "market value" of 15 city-owned historic properties. Baltimore Heritage has asked MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeand the director of the Department of General Services to make this process open and participatory to ensure that there is a seat at the table for the many citizens and volunteers who for decades have protected and celebrated these important landmarks.

Our most important goal in this process must be to make sure the buildings are occupied, well cared for and remain intact as public assets for Baltimore. These 15 properties are irreplaceable reminders of our city's long history, from the War of 1812 through the development and civic life of Baltimore to the present. For nearly all of these buildings, from the Shot Tower to President Street Station, local residents and preservation organizations have spent years, even decades, working to celebrate their unique stories and preserve them for our city's future. These groups and their volunteers understand the importance of this history more than anyone else. They and the city's preservation commission — the city agency charged with overseeing historic preservation in Baltimore — must be at the center of any consideration for their future.

In addition to determining the economic value of these 15 buildings, the use and ownership structure for each building should be evaluated based on what is best to keep it standing and well maintained for current and future Baltimoreans. There are many different forms of ownership that these properties could have, including public ownership and public use; leasing to nonprofit or for-profit organizations; or even outright private ownership and private use. These options and others should be considered with the long-term care of each building and its value as a public resource as the guiding principles.

The buildings on this list vary widely, not just in terms of their architecture, history and location in Baltimore but also as to whether they are vacant or occupied, well maintained or run down, and regarding their prospects for finding users and resources to keep them standing. It seems obvious that each building needs to be evaluated carefully and individually.

Regardless of who owns or leases each building on the list, all of the properties should be protected to make sure they are preserved. Twelve of the 15 are already on the city's historic landmark list, requiring the approval of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (the city's historic preservation commission) for any exterior changes. Additional protections could include placing historic easements on the buildings or including specific preservation requirements in leases or use agreements.

Although the current proposal has targeted 15 buildings, the city owns dozens more iconic historic structures — the Bromo Seltzer Tower, the Patterson Park Pagoda, 15 structures in Druid Hill Park, the Edgar Allan Poe House, Flag House, H.L. Mencken House, Washington Monument and Babe Ruth House are all city-owned historic properties. Some city-owned icons are fully occupied and well maintained while others have sat vacant for years and are in desperate need of repair.

If nothing else, the attention and concern over this study have put city-owned landmarks in the spotlight. We should seize the opportunity to ensure a future for all of these historic places by creating an inventory of city-owned historic buildings and a rehabilitation and maintenance plan for each. If the evaluation and planning process is open and includes the organizations and individuals who have cared for these publicly owned buildings, we can take a big step forward in our role as the current stewards of these places and ensure they are standing for future generations.

In the 1920s, a group of Baltimore citizens rallied to save the Phoenix Shot Tower from being demolished to make way for a gas station. At that time, the structure was privately owned, and in one of Baltimore's earliest historic preservation efforts, the group raised more than $20,000, bought the tower and then donated it to the city. Nearly 100 years ago, these people had the foresight and determination to give us a great gift that has become a Baltimore icon. Today, we are the stewards of the Shot Tower and many other great historic places. We now have the chance, and the obligation, to employ the same creativity and determination to make sure these places remain for future Baltimoreans to enjoy.

Johns W. Hopkins is executive director of Baltimore Heritage Inc. His email is hopkins@baltimoreheritage.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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