History repeating: A City Dock study offers reflection on the life of the waterfront

In an architect’s rendering of a re-imagined City Dock, trees flanked by pedestrian walkways dot the Annapolis downtown. A waterfront park hosts public monuments. There are no cars.

Of course, that’s because the rendering is from 1937.


In 2018, Annapolis is trying again.

Following Mayor Gavin Buckley’s controversial redevelopment proposal and a more up-to-date rendering that re-imagines the City Dock area, Historic Annapolis has commissioned a new study of the City Dock area lead by the Urban Land Institute, Baltimore. It’ll be the third institute study to take stock of the downtown waterfront.


“City Dock has always been that physical point of connection between the city on the land and the water and its maritime life has always operated there...” said Glenn E. Campbell, senior historian with the preservation nonprofit.

“It works both ways. It’s Annapolitans looking out to the Chesapeake Bay and then it’s people arriving in Annapolis and sort of that first glimpse they have of the city as they make that last turn into City Dock.”

Historic Annapolis last month succeeded in listing the city’s City Dock area on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of Endangered Historic Places — a move that came mostly in response to Buckley’s legislation relaxing height and bulk restrictions in the area. This does not jeopardize the city’s designation as a National Landmark with the National Park Service, a separate federal entity.

But unlike other Annapolis locales, with facades unchanged since the 1700s, City Dock has lived many lives.

Before Francis Nicholson’s 1692 city plan, the City Dock area was called Weathering Cove, said Campbell. Ships coming down the Severn River unloaded on the other side of the peninsula at Acton’s Cove and Weathering Cove remained largely undeveloped.

The Nicholson plan shifted activity over to Weathering Cove and the 18th century brought dock-side trade and ship-building.

Oysters came to town in the 19th century, when watermen started hauling and shucking the mollusks that gave rise to downtown oyster-packing businesses. An 1878 map shows the Annapolis Canning Co. on the southern side of City Dock and a cluster of oyster houses on the northern side. Merchants threw fish guts into the water, where they rotted and stank up the waterfront.

By the 1920 and ’30s, industry had overtaken the waterfront. Lumber yards and oil tankers had prime views of Spa Creek.


A 1930 map shows Standard Oil Co. and the Annapolis Dairy Products Corp. set up along Ego Alley. Off Prince George Street, the Tolchester Co. received steamboats off the Severn. Cars and recreational boats start to show up.

That’s the Annapolis architect John P.W. Churchill sought to overhaul in his 1937 rendering of the waterfront. Commissioned by the Company for the Preservation of Colonial Annapolis, Churchill drew a colonial square to replace the gritty, industrial port dominating City Dock in his day.

The quaint parks and breezeways mimicked the John D. Rockefeller-backed Williamsburg, Virginia restoration.

But Annapolis didn’t have Rockefeller money, Campbell said, and the restoration never happened.

In the ensuing decades, the people of Annapolis would continue to quibble over City Dock: how it should look, what people should do when they get there and whether there should be cars.

In 1964, more than 1,400 residents signed a petition opposing high-rise hotels on the waterfront. Later that year, the city passed height and bulk restrictions in the Historic District, limiting the size of most new developments.


The city, over the years, sanctioned lotteries, imposed taxes, worked with a Naval Academy waste treatment plant to spiff up the downtown waterfront.

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In 2018, residents showed up repeatedly at City Council meetings to oppose a high-rise hotel on the waterfront. Buckley’s legislation proposing exemptions to the height and bulk restrictions failed to get a second motion from the council.

The city is now partnering with local businessmen, seeking grants, shipping in nationally renown “placemakers” to spiff up the downtown waterfront.

Despite the city’s history of studies that sit unused, Historic Annapolis president Robert Clark said he’s hopeful this report will be different. The past ones, maybe they fell victim to politics, Clark said.

Historic Annapolis will pay for the $20,000 report, to be completed by the end of September. The non-profit, with the help of residents, businesses and city officials, will submit questions for ULI to study over an intensive, two-day session.

ULI will set up panels of experts to review the sites, conduct interviews and deliberate over the questions before submitting a comprehensive report, said governance chair Sean Davis. The last report, completed in 2010, addressed the commercial potential of City Dock, the old recreation center, pedestrian access and zoning.


Buckley said he’ll read the new report — “you can never have enough information,” he said. But in the meantime, he’s working with private partners to come up with versions of a City Dock redevelopment that are palatable for the neighborhood, he said.

“I just want action.”