City staff members are recommending that the Birely Tannery building be demolished to make way for Frederick’s proposed downtown hotel and conference center.
People who oppose the demolition will have one last chance at Thursday’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting to make their feelings known before commissioners decide its ultimate fate.
The commissioners have the final say on the demo and do not legally have to go along with the recommendation. They have held four public workshops to discuss the details of the request, which lasted for multiple hours and featured passionate comments from individuals both for and against the demolition.
Members of the public will have another chance to comment on the request before the commissioners vote.
The demolition request stems from plans to construct a multimillion dollar hotel and conference center at 200-212 E. Patrick St. The commissioners determined in July that the early 20th-century brick tannery building and surrounding archaeological site are contributing resources to the Frederick Town Historic District, thus halting immediate demolition plans.
The proposed design includes demolition of the tannery building but incorporates rehabilitation of the old Frederick Trolley building, which most recently housed The Frederick News-Post.
The developers, architects and other project partners were tasked with proving demolition of the tannery as the only logical way to construct the hotel at that site. They were also required to prove that all possible alternatives for preservation have been exhausted and to provide an alternative plan for preserving the historic elements of the site.
A last-ditch effort
Former Commission Chairman Scott Winnette has spoken against the demolition request on behalf of a local historic preservation advocacy group, the Frederick Preservation Trust. He spoke at the last workshop on Sept. 1, and said he hopes to attend Thursday’s meeting. He expects other members of the trust to show up as well.
During Winnette’s 10-year tenure on the Historic Preservation Commission, he said he recalls several instances in which the commissioners strayed from the recommendation of the staff members.
“Always, the staff report is respected, but there are occasions where the commission goes in a different direction,” he said.
Winnette explained that the employees are tasked only with following the historic preservation guidelines, but he said the commission exists to look at other details to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
“That’s why there is a seven-member body, to give you some wiggle room,” he said. “With the staff, it’s just the bottom line.”
While Winnette added that he hopes the commissioners will stray from the staff report with Thursday’s tannery demolition decision, he said he does not have a prediction on what will happen.
“I have no idea what they’ll do,” he said.
Jack Lynch, one of the founders of local advocacy group Friends of Frederick County, plans to attend Thursday’s meeting on behalf of the group. The members of Friends of Frederick County have been vocal opponents of the project at the proposed site.
Lynch said Wednesday he thinks it is premature to be voting on the demolition and believes the commission could be facing a lawsuit if they move forward with the staff members’ recommendation. He referenced an article that longtime project opponent Peter Samuel wrote that said the commission has not followed the proper, legal procedures for approving demolition of a structure that has been determined to be of unusual importance. The article predicts a decision to demolish the tannery building could be challenged in a lawsuit that could ultimately overturn it, which Lynch believes is a significant possibility.
He also said he does not think the developers have considered how much of an undertaking it will be to preserve the historic elements of the site.
“The city has never been dealt with a site as complex as these sites are for this project … they think it’s going to be quick and easy, and it’s not going to be,” he said.
Kimberly Mellon, a Friends of Frederick County board member, is also planning to speak against the demolition.
Group members distributed online fliers over the past couple of weeks advertising Thursday’s meeting and encouraging people to attend in an effort to “Save the Tannery.”
“We’ve been learning and following information from experts and historians in the area … and we’ve come to the realization that we don’t feel [the tannery] should be torn down. We feel it should be preserved,” Mellon said.
She added that she and the other demolition opponents were surprised about the contents of the staff report.
“We were actually very shocked the city staff have reversed their decision and recommended demolition,” Mellon said.
Staff members did not make a recommendation for demolition before issuing the staff report for Thursday’s meeting. The only other recommendation staff members made was in July, before the first meeting on the tannery building demolition. The recommendation urged the commission to find the site and structures are contributing resources to the district. It said staff members would make a decision on demolition at a subsequent hearing. The commission upheld the recommendation and proceeded with the four workshops to discuss the demolition request.
The staff report, which is attached to the agenda for Thursday’s meeting, said employees determined “the structure is a deterrent to a major improvement program that will be of substantial benefit to the City subject to the approval and permit application for a replacement plan.”
It also includes an array of comments explaining how they came to that decision, which included information gleaned from the presentations the project proponents made during the workshops.
The report points out the developer’s efforts to incorporate the building into the project and the challenges they said they would face in redeveloping it. Staff members agreed that redeveloping the building without the help of the developer’s money would not be feasible.
“Staff concurs with the applicant’s presentation and testimony which posits that this site would be unlikely to be successfully redeveloped if not for the public-private partnership arrangement that has been assembled for this particular project,” the report states.
Pete Plamondon Jr., co-president of Plamondon Hospitality Partners, and architects with Peter Fillat Architects and Bates Architects also offered some examples during the last workshop of how the developers may incorporate the historic elements of the tanning industry into the project.
Plamondon did not return a call for comment Wednesday.