Advocates and opponents of a proposed downtown hotel and conference center got a chance on Wednesday to question historic preservation aspects of the project.
Parties involved in the project, who organized Wednesday night’s session, billed the event as part of a commitment to an open and transparent process. Many in attendance agreed that the session was informative, even if they didn’t agree with some of the statements made. But a few of the roughly two dozen local residents and preservationists took issue with the controlled nature of the question portion of the event.
The meeting came on the heels of information presented last week about the remnants of a 19th-century tannery building on the site proposed for the hotel and conference center. Kann Partners, a Baltimore-based consultant retained by hotel developer Plamondon Hospitality Partners to research and facilitate applications related to historic preservation, concluded that the Birely Tannery building is ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
The tannery is slated for demolition under plans to build a the 200-room hotel and 24,000-square-foot conference center with on-site parking and infrastructure improvements at the site of the old Frederick News-Post building. The property is owned by a business entity formed by members of the Randall family. The Randall family also owns the parent company of The News-Post.
Write-in question format criticized
The Wednesday event included an opportunity for questions, which participants submitted on pieces of paper that were then read aloud to the consultant team by John Fieseler, executive director of the Tourism Council of Frederick County and member of the Downtown Hotel Advisory Committee.
It was the style of this question-and-answer session, more than the information presented itself, that some people criticized.
Fieseler explained that the format of the question session was used successfully in Frederick Speaker Series events. It minimizes the possibility of repeat questions on the same topic and stops a single speaker from dominating the conversation, Fieseler said in an interview after the meeting.
He described the question format as effective and efficient, comments echoed by Pete Plamondon Jr., co-president of Plamondon Hospitality Partners, and Kara Norman, executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, who also helped plan the event.
But some who submitted questions disagreed.
Mary Frances Mickevich, a city resident who submitted a question about how the new design would fit the surrounding streetscape, said in an interview after the event that the format of the question portion was “very controlled,” which she did not necessarily see as a good thing,
“It makes it nice and easy for the people sitting up there,” she said, gesturing to the consultants at the front of the room. “It’s very civil, but I don’t know that that really benefits the process.”
“If they were committed to dialogue they would have let the people here stand up and ask questions, the Frederick way,” she added.
“It seems more like words [than action],” Gil House, an Urbana resident and local historian, said of project partners’ statements regarding dialogue and transparency.
Bernie Callan, a local resident who has been involved with historic preservation on the city, county and state levels, also said he was unsure if the format was the best way to engage in public dialogue.
“It seems like they didn’t answer some of the questions,” Callan said, although he noted that this could also be because the questions did not pertain to the scope of the topics presented that night.
One question that Fieseler read that was not directly addressed, for example, was how a determination by the state or local historic group that the tannery was eligible for a designation would affect redevelopment plans.
When told later about these concerns, Pete Plamondon said those who had follow-up questions or questions they did not feel were adequately answered could have spoken to consultants one-on-one once the event ended, which they were invited to do.
The final decisions regarding the tannery’s historic significance and preservation have not been made. Kann will submit its conclusion and accompanying research to the Maryland Historical Trust, the state agency that determines if the tannery can be on the National Register. The city Historic Preservation Commission will weigh in on the building’s historical significance as it relates to the Frederick Town Historic District.
Part of the submission to the state will include results of archaeological testing on the site, which will begin next week.
Mechelle Kerns, principal archaeologist for Kerns CRM Consultants, the Annapolis-based firm serving as the archaeological consultant for the project, detailed the plans for the site testing, as well as reports from prior archaeological tests done in the 1980s and 1990s as part of the Carroll Creek flood control and park project.
Kerns also addressed concerns voiced previously about potential contaminants on the site, which she called “a fallacy.”
The pre-industrial tanning industry had no access to the kinds of chemicals that would contaminate the soil, she said. Nor did prior archaeological and soil testing reveal the presence of these chemicals.
“I wouldn’t be digging there if there was,” she said.
Archaeological testing, originally slated to begin Wednesday, has been postponed until next week due to delays with the contractor hired to remove the gravel and blacktop, which is necessary before archaeological testing can begin, according to Pete Plamondon.
Project consultants are on track to submit results of the archaeological research to the state next month, The Frederick News-Post has reported. The slightly later start date for the archaeological site work will not affect that timeline, Pete Plamondon said.
Design plans are also targeted for a September submission date to the city. Initial renderings from when Plamondon in 2014 responded to the city request for proposals have been widely circulated, but final design plans, which must meet the city’s requirements for the Frederick Town Historic District, have not yet been finalized or made public.