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ON THE SOAPBOX:

The Value of Preserving the Past

by Lynda Lambert

From simple row homes to grand theaters, Baltimore’s property tax laws allow—even promote—demolition by neglect.
A recent Sun article ("Preservationists get proactive," July 9, 2007) highlights some important issues, not just for preservationists but for all City residents. Take property taxes, for example.

Concerning the Scottish Rite Temple’s becoming a landmark building, the Freemason spokesman is quoted in the article as saying, "If the City wants to put a wedge into what we want to do, we’ll stop the maintenance and let it fall down."

First, historic landmark status is not a "wedge"; it is a patina. To coat a building with the fine sheen of historic status calls attention to that building from many quarters. To have many landmarks in one place helps make that place into a travel destination.

According to some sources, almost 80% of today’s vacation travelers are "historic travelers." They seek out destinations which have great shopping and great places to eat and stay, but their focus is learning about history by seeing historic things and places. And that is increasing.

Second, "stop the maintenance and let it fall down" should not be an option; yet, it is. Demolition by neglect has lost the City many landmark buildings. One of the most egregious in my recollection is the Peabody Book Shop on North Charles Street in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, but there are, quite literally, hundreds of others. From simple row homes to grand theaters, Baltimore’s property tax laws allow—even promote—demolition by neglect.

If one fixes up a property the taxed value of the property goes up and, hence, so do the taxes. Let it run down and the taxed value of the property goes down. It should be just the reverse.
Those of us who restore certain properties may qualify for restoration preservation tax credits for a certain number of years, if we jump through bureaucratic hoops (the City Council has extended the option of applying for historic tax credits through February 28, 2009). Generally speaking, however, if one fixes up a property in Baltimore City the assessed value of the property goes up and, hence, so do the taxes. If you let that property run down, the taxed value of the property goes down.

It should be just the reverse—not just for historic preservation properties, but for all properties that are significantly upgraded.

After all, if someone fixes up a property, then there is less work for the City to do. That property will not become a vacant crack house; that property will not become a home for rats and trash.

If someone does not fix up a property, it becomes not only an eyesore which brings down entire blocks and can destabilize neighborhoods, but it costs everyone in the City in additional services which must be rendered.

Absentee landlords and investment owners who allow their properties to run down should be taxed at ever-increasing rates until the property is restored.
One way in which preservationists could become truly proactive is to force the City to change its policies. Absentee landlords and investment owners who allow their properties to run down should be taxed at ever-increasing rates until the property is restored. Daily penalties should be assessed on the property until the owner fixes it up or sells it.

Also mentioned in the Sun article was the Morris Mechanic Theatre, which has been designated as an historic landmark by the City’s preservation commission. Quite frankly, to this preservationist, the idea of making the Morris Mechanic Theatre an historic monument is one of those things that drips with irony. To make way for that theatre and Charles Center, an entire block of important 19th and early 20th century buildings was razed. One of the most egregious acts of those demolitions was the destruction of the Century-Valencia, a one-of-a-kind double theatre, built by Loews in 1927. And Morris Mechanic himself is said to have torn down the magnificent Stanley Theatre (renamed by him The Stanton in 1958), so that his new Charles Center Theatre would have no competition for live stage shows.

I can only say that I do not believe the Morris Mechanic theatre is worth preserving for history. However, if others think there is something there to save, then I would support saving it. Because the problem with so many people’s idea of tear-it-down-now-and-think-about-it-later is that once done, it can not be undone.

If I were given a choice, I would place a covenant over every building in Baltimore that is currently standing. I would say that no building may be razed in the City of Baltimore without review as to what the building represents to the City and what is proposed to be put in its place.

For instance, replacing 29 historic Victorian homes in Waverly with a Giant grocery store of suburban design was a travesty. Such a store may have been needed in the neighborhood, but that suburban footprint was not. The increasing suburbanization of the urban footprint is another problem for those of us who would like not only to preserve our historic buildings but our urban environment.

Across America, the tearing down of our history is "epidemic," according to The National Trust for Historic Preservation, but in Baltimore and Maryland over the last 15 years, we have actually promoted it. Kurt Schmoke’s "fix it up or we’ll tear it down" policy destroyed hundreds of buildings, even in the middles of blocks, that could have been taken, sold for a dollar and fixed up. And Parris Glendening’s "smart growth" policy, while good for suburban areas, has been anathema to the City which does not have a lot of virgin space to build on.

Add to that the new policy of taking one person’s property to give to another private owner through eminent domain, and you have the makings of the total destruction of both the Cityscape and the City.

Baltimore City in 1958 was run down, but it was whole. If we had restored instead of destroyed, Baltimore would rank much higher as a worldwide tourist destination. People would come from everywhere to see a city preserved.

If you doubt this, ask yourself if you would go to England if there were no Stonehenge, if there were no Traitors’ Gate. Would you make the trip to Italy if there were only modern skyscrapers? Would you bother even driving to Philadelphia, if there were no Liberty Bell; New York, if there were no Empire State Building?

According to the July/August issue of Preservation magazine, travel is a $1.3 trillion industry in the United States. "Historic travelers," those who seek historic places, represent approximately 824 billion of those dollars.

Baltimore is an historic city; it must remain one if we are to compete.

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Find out what historic tax credits and other financial inducements may currently be available—locally, state-wide and nationally.


In addition to being a writer and teacher, and a frequent contributor to The Baltimore Chronicle, Lynda Lambert is a charter member of the Baltimore City Historical Society, and member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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This story was published on August 15, 2007.