High price of history


"If you try to make economic sense of it, you won't," the executive director of Arundel Community Development Services Inc. warned Anne Arundel County Council members recently, when she briefed them on a $1.2 million plan to renovate 16 rental houses in a Galesville watermen's community.

Nevertheless, Kathleen Koch insisted her non-profit organization could retain the character of the old African-American community along West Benning Road for less than what it would cost to raze and rebuild it. The project's purpose isn't just historic or aesthetic: It is to create affordable, livable housing for families in South County.

"There isn't a for-profit developer who in his right mind would be willing to go in and do this and keep these units affordable," Ms. Koch said.

Restoring historic structures does not come cheap. All kinds of unanticipated complications may arise during repair work. Indeed, whether housing is old or new, one has to pay an ever steeper price for it.

The Galesville community that ACDS wants to restore dates to the mid-1800s. Most of the residents are members of families who worked as shuckers at the old Woodfield Oyster Co. A typical family has been paying $24 a week in rent for the primitive houses which lack indoor plumbing.

Is this community worth restoring at such a considerable cost? We think so. This is an opportunity to retain the character of a rare oystering village in Maryland and do so no more expensively than providing newly constructed subsidized housing.

The historic argument alone is compelling. The now-defunct company's founder, William A. Woodfield, started harvesting oysters in 1859. He shipped them in barrels to Baltimore aboard the legendary sidewheeler, Emma Giles. The Galesville community was originally built by the company to house shuckers.

ACDS is spending $800,000 in federal money and $400,000 in state aid on the 16 units. Outhouses will be removed, bathrooms installed and kitchens expanded. What ACDS is asking from the county is a tax break.

The project is can be compared to the restoration of Oella, an old Baltimore County mill town along the Patapsco across from Ellicott City.

There is a significant difference, however: The renovated units in Oella can hardly be called affordable housing.

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