Plan to tear down Ellicott City buildings worries those concerned about preserving history

Howard County’s plan to tear down buildings along Ellicott City’s historic Main Street to prevent future flooding sparked objections from preservationists worried about losing pieces of the fabric of the historic mill town.

Preservation Maryland, a statewide advocacy group, issued a statement questioning and condemning what it called the “demolition scheme” announced Thursday by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein. The $50 million plan would demolish buildings, build water retention facilities and expand waterways beneath the street during the next five years to help lessen the impacts of future floods and improve public safety in the town.

Ellicott City’s Main Street has flooded twice since 2016, destroying businesses and residences and killing several people. Kittleman and Weinstein said the plan was aimed at increasing the safety of residents, business owners and visitors.

But Preservation Maryland worried the plan would do little to mitigate flooding and could jeopardize the town’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Ellicott City is one of the state of Maryland’s crown jewels. What is done here will resonate for generations to come — and could, if done correctly, set a standard to which the rest of the nation strives to meet,” Preservation Maryland said in a statement. “Preservation Maryland firmly believes we must rise to meet this challenge. The future of Ellicott City depends on it.”

While the group said it supports efforts to save lives in Ellicott City, it suggested alternative strategies to tearing down buildings. Under the plan, 5 percent of the historic district — 10 buildings at the base of Main Street, seven residences and two other structures — would be demolished.

“Proven stormwater management tools and scientifically driven hydrologic retention efforts should be employed to reverse the damaging man-made impacts now causing these events,” Preservation Maryland’s statement said. “Demolition of historic buildings, is not, however, a proven strategy nor has it been adequately studied in Ellicott City to understand its hydrological impact.”

The group wanted to learn more about the county’s decision-making process, and worried that removing buildings could create new flood patterns that would put other sites, like the B&O Ellicott City Station Museum, a National Historic Landmark, at risk.

Weinstein said he was disappointed Preservation Maryland characterized the flood mitigation plan as a “scheme.”

“There’s no scheme here,” he said. “This is a thoughtful plan that’s based on science.”

Removing buildings was a last resort, Kittleman said.

“We don’t want it to lose its historic character, we don’t want it to lose the historic charm it has,” Kittleman said. “But we also don’t want it to be gone.”

Debbie Slack Katz, vice president of the Ellicott City Partnership board of directors and chair of the partnership’s flood work group, defended the county’s decision-making.

“The county had to make some very difficult decisions, but I also think that there was no way that we could continue to put up with the kind of flooding that we were having, especially after having four lives lost,” Slack Katz said.

She grew up in Ellicott City and will sit on a historic preservation advisory group that will work to preserve pieces of buildings as they are dismantled. She hopes the group can save mementos like signs from Caplan’s department store building, or granite blocks from facades — reminders of her childhood. Although many of the buildings have been modified in the town’s 246-year history, they hold memories for the business owners and residents that inhabit Main Street.

“Anything that’s historically intact enough for us to save, I think it’s our responsibility to save,” Slack Katz said. “It’s important to save whatever we can from it, not only from a historic standpoint but also for the memory of the town.”

It’s not the first time Ellicott City has experienced sweeping evolution. Floods, fires and a train derailment have prompted changes before.

“Ellicott City doesn’t look anything like it did 100 years ago, 50 years ago. I mean, the town has adapted so much and a lot of times it’s adapted as a result of these natural disasters,” said Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society and another member of the historic preservation advisory group for Ellicott City. “These disasters seem to always force some kind of change.”

But Preservation Maryland said demolishing buildings in Ellicott City could lead to the town’s removal from the National Register of Historic Places, thereby limiting tax credits and other incentives available for the community.

The Ellicott City Historic District, as well as individual sites in the town, are part of the register.

Jim Gabbert, a historian at the National Register of Historic Places who reviews sites in Maryland, said the National Register can remove a place if the historic character that made it eligible for the list is compromised.

“In the case of a district, if the extent of the loss is such that it no longer reflects why it was listed then it can be removed from the National Register,” Gabbert said.

But the National Register does not take places off the list unless someone requests their removal, he said.

Without knowing the history of each of the 19 buildings slated for removal in Ellicott City, Gabbert said it’s hard to say whether their demolition would constitute an argument for removing the district from the register.

“It could be 19 particularly significant resources,” he said. “While everything within the district boundaries are listed in the National Register as part of the district, there are those that have more historic value than others.”

Sites listed on the National Register are not inherently protected from construction or modification. But if property owners are using federal funds to change a site on the register — as Howard County hopes to do — they must consult with the state preservation office — in Ellicott City’s case, the Maryland Historical Trust — on whether the project will adversely affect the site’s historic nature, Gabbert said.

Howard County officials said they expect to use a combination of local, state and federal funds for their five-year project to protect the historic mill town from flooding.

Peter Kurtze, National Register coordinator for the Maryland Historical Trust, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Preservationists have not played a prominent role in planning for Ellicott City’s future until now, said Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County, who also will sit on the Ellicott City preservation advisory group. He wanted to see more alternatives presented for flood mitigation by county officials — particularly on the north end of Main Street.

Before the May 27 flood, talk of demolishing historic structures in Ellicott City was “big-time frowned upon by us in the preservation community,” Gladden said.

But he hasn’t seen a better alternative.

“I haven’t seen another plan that achieves the hydrology goals that I think the county is trying to achieve,” Gladden said. “Begrudgingly, at this point this looks like this is our option.”

The buildings set to be removed at the bottom of Main Street housed beloved businesses such as Great Panes Glass Studio, Bean Hollow, Phoenix Emporium, Portalli’s, Discoveries, Tea on the Tiber, Shoemaker Country and Miss Fit. Two of the buildings have been vacant since 2016.

While some business owners in Ellicott City were saddened to hear their buildings were being eyed for demolition, others, like Great Panes co-owner Sherry Fackler-Berkowtiz, praised the proposal. She said her building has been renovated a number of times, and much of its historic character was lost after the 2016 flood, when she gutted the building.

Gladden agreed many structures along Main Street had been modified over time, and said their facades provide the most direct connection to the buildings’ origins.

“The most historically intact building is probably the Tea on the Tiber,” he said. “Other than that many of those buildings have changed numerous times.”

The preservation advisory group will work to document the buildings’ history and removal and save what it can — pieces of facades, significant architectural features, signs, granite steps and any artifacts unearthed as the buildings come down. Still, Gladden said, it will be shocking when and if the buildings disappear.

“You try and look at the positives when something like this happens, but it’s very difficult,” Gladden said. “All of us have devoted our lives to historic preservation and to be presented something that basically is the antithesis of what you stand for is hard.”

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