Debate grows in historic district


When homeowners in Annapolis' historic district want to change their doors, replace their porch or build an addition, they have to get approval from the city's Historic Preservation Commission.

When the Anne Arundel County government or private developers want to build new structures downtown, they must get approval from city planners, acquire building permits, and appear before the commission to make sure the project meets rules for scale, design and materials.

But one very noticeable Annapolis entity avoids the local planning process: the state government.

The state's exemption from local review - long a source of frustration in the city - is being challenged in court by a lawyer whose office is across Franklin Street from a small state-funded African-American museum that is about to build a $5.5 million addition.

Thomas McCarthy Jr. says the addition to the Banneker-Douglass Museum would be an architectural misfit in the historic district. He wants work halted until the state gets local approval for the project - which he argues should have been done anyway because the county owns the land.

But McCarthy says his concerns about the city's lack of oversight go beyond the museum to all state projects in the historic district.

"I want it not just for the Banneker-Douglass addition, but for every other building," McCarthy said. "The implication of the state routinely exempting itself from the historic district ordinance is enormous."

City officials and historic preservationists agree that the dispute over the addition to the museum - housed in historic Mt. Moriah Church - is part of a long-simmering problem for Annapolis.

The state's immunity to city reviews and regulations leads to projects that they say threaten the integrity of the city's historic district.

"The quality of the buildings in the historic district has to be very carefully considered lest we lose that designation," said Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. "If you get too far down the line with too many buildings that pay too little attention to the designation of a historic district, you end up losing it. And that can't happen."

Critics complain about the excessive bulk of several state office buildings and the use of "unnatural materials" such as aluminum-clad windows. David Blick, chairman of the preservation commission, said people refer disdainfully to the style of the state office buildings as "Georgian-revival on steroids."

They also point to projects outside the district, such as the $11.3 million District Court building completed in 1998 on Rowe Boulevard that they say dominates the gateway of the city and, with its modern design and curved glass front, just doesn't fit in.

The unattached marble columns that stand near it came from the old Court of Appeals building near the State House - a building demolished by the state in 1972 that many in the city say should have been saved.

The Department of General Services, which oversees many of the state's construction projects, says it is open to public comment and makes an effort to be sensitive to local concerns - even though it doesn't have to.

"We have ongoing, cooperative relationships with local government, including city and county councils and local preservation groups," said department spokesman Dave Humphrey. "We do reach out to local government. The state is sensitive to local design guidelines."

Humphrey points to four meetings in four years in which the state consulted with the city on the Banneker-Douglass Museum addition and to opportunities for public comment on other projects. For historic review, the state goes through the Maryland Historic Trust, he said.

But Blick and others say the historic trust's guidelines are not specific to Annapolis and aren't as detailed or strict.

Jon Arason, director of the city's Planning and Zoning Department, said the state met with the city about the museum addition - and tried to incorporate suggestions made by the staff and preservation council. But he and the mayor say the state's overtures often amount to too little, too late.

"If they are coming to you just so they can fill out a form and check off the box that they met with a local jurisdiction, it is different than if they come to you and actually take your comments," Arason said.

"I think if they were to come to us and sincerely wanted to partner with us for our input [it would result in] a better project."

For example, the downtown Anne Arundel County Circuit Court building - designed by the same architect as the District Court structure on Rowe Boulevard - went through intense historic district review and is widely praised.

"It is about attitude, and it is about directive," Moyer said. "We need to be at the table, and we need to be there early."

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