Fells Point is one of Baltimore's oldest communities, but it has never officially been recognized as a city historic district.
That would change if local preservationists succeed with a new effort to have Fells Point legally designated the city's 31st historic district, under the purview of Baltimore's Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation.
The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point is in the early stages of compiling lists of property owners and building support for the designation as a way to protect more buildings from demolition or insensitive alteration.
Representatives of the Preservation Society have asked community leaders to canvass residents and property owners to determine whether they support historic designation.
"We're hoping that we can do something to protect the historic fabric of this community," said Society vice president Kay Hogan. "We're very concerned about it."
Established in the 1700s, Fells Point is significant as one of the original three settlements that merged to form the beginnings of Baltimore. It was named after William Fell, an immigrant who built a small shipyard in the southeastern corner of Baltimore's harbor in the 1730s, and his son Edward, who laid out the town's streets in the 1770s.
The area grew to become a center for shipbuilding and maritime trade, making it vital to Baltimore's growth and development. It was the birthplace for many of Baltimore's famed clipper ships, which gained prominence by capturing and sinking British warships in the War of 1812.
Much of Fells Point's maritime character comes from the small gabled-roof residences that housed local seamen, ship's carpenters, sailmakers and artisans. The Robert Long House on Ann Street, dating from the 1760s, is considered Baltimore's oldest urban residence. Other landmarks range from the London Coffee Shop and George Wells House to Brown's Wharf, Broadway Market and the city-owned Recreation Pier, which was recently awarded to a development team that intends to convert it to a boutique hotel.
In 1969, part of Fells Point was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a federal historic district. The federal district was expanded in 1986 and now covers the area bounded roughly by Castle Street on the east, Gough Street on the north, Caroline Street on the west and the waterfront on the south. But being listed on the National Register does not protect historic buildings from demolition or alteration if federal funds are not involved.
The city of Baltimore has been designating local historic districts since 1964, starting with Mount Vernon. In areas that are designated city historic districts, property owners must obtain approval from CHAP if they want to alter a building's exterior, tear it down or expand it. Originally set up as an independent agency, CHAP marked its 40th anniversary this year and now operates as part of Baltimore's planning department.
Over the years, Fells Point residents have resisted efforts to make their community a city historic district even though other neighborhoods have welcomed the designation. According to Hogan, many longtime residents have been suspicious of city government in general, particularly since elected officials once supported a plan to build a highway through much of Fells Point and Canton; others are uncomfortable with the idea of having to obtain permits from CHAP.
But lack of designation also means lack of a certain level of design review and scrutiny that only preservation districts receive.
Today, "we don't feel that we get that respect" that city preservation districts get, Hogan said. "You can see it in the level of permits being issued."
The latest effort to designate Fells Point a city historic district was launched shortly after preservationists lost a battle this year to save the Wills Dairy, a 1920s Art Deco building on Fleet Street that a builder wanted to raze for townhouses.
Preservationists went to court, arguing that the dairy was in an urban renewal area and was worthy of preservation. But city officials said they did not have legal grounds to block demolition just because the building was in a renewal area. Had the dairy been part of a city historic district, however, a public hearing would have been required, and CHAP would have had the authority to block demolition at the conclusion of the hearing.
After that decision, Hogan said, members of the Preservation Society decided to pursue CHAP designation for Fells Point and formed a committee to begin the process. "We're trying to go one step farther than we are now," she said. "We're trying to expand the area of protection as best we can."
At a recent meeting of the Fells Point Task Force, a network of community organizations, CHAP executive director Kathleen Kotarba said that a majority of property owners must support designation before the City Council will pass legislation making it official for a given area.
Kotarba explained that CHAP requires property owners to adhere to city-approved guidelines for new construction and changes to buildings but does not ask property owners to undo existing conditions.
"Where we feel we can help you is with private initiatives - demolition, new construction - that are not appropriate or that may be out of scale with the community's character," Kotarba said.
CHAP designation protects historic areas more than urban renewal district designation because "we have more teeth" with regard to preservation issues, she said. "We can just say no. We have a very strong preservation ordinance ... That strength of the ordinance is what allows us to tell people 'no' to bad ideas."
With the recent merger of CHAP and the planning department, "we're more involved in the front end of the planning process," she added.
Hogan said the boundaries of the city historic district could be the same as the federal district or different, depending on what property owners decide. She said she hopes to see the area designated before another preservation flap arises.
"Everybody talks about the value of our historic neighborhood," she said. "But it's going to disappear if we don't protect it."
Up for grabs
A second former Baltimore police station has come on the market, this time in Upper Fells Point.
The city housing department has set March 17 as the deadline for individuals or groups to submit proposals for the former city police station at 1621 Bank St. and an adjacent parking lot. The building will be open for inspection from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Jan. 14.
The city is also seeking buyers for the former Canton Police Station at 1300 S. Baylis St., near Brewer's Hill. More information about both properties is available at www.baltimorehousing.org.