The hotel and conference center project planned for downtown Frederick has had no shortage of critics as the proposal moves forward.
Among them are several historic preservation advocates, who have taken to social media and commented at recent city meetings to express their concerns with how the $82.47 million project has progressed.
Specifically, they cite a lack of opportunity for opinions from the local preservation community and experts. They have highlighted the need to reconcile developer Plamondon Hospitality Partners’ preliminary site design plans with city requirements for demolishing historic buildings and for new construction in the downtown historic district.
Preserving the past
Discussion of the property’s historic significance focuses on two structures — the trolley building facing South Carroll Street and the small, white tannery building at the back of 212 E. Patrick St.
Each provides key insight in the city’s history, according to Anthony Moscato Jr., chairman of the group Frederick Preservation Trust.
As the local terminal for the Frederick and Middletown Railway, the 1911 trolley building “represented a moment between the horse and buggy, the steam-driven locomotive and the advent of the automobile,” Moscato wrote in an email. Although the trolley building contains two modern additions, the original front remains from its incarnation as the Frederick RR Freight Terminal, according to Historical Society of Frederick County records.
The Birely Tannery building, too, provides insight into a key industry and employer in Frederick throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, according to a 1991 site report compiled by a Delaware history and archeological research company. At peak production in the early to mid-19th century, tanners in Frederick produced approximately 100,000 finished hides per year, according to the report.
Several other sites along Patrick Street that once contributed to the local tanning industry no longer exist, making the two-story brick building a remaining relic of the industry, and maybe the only one, according to Moscato.
Preliminary project plans and renderings of the downtown hotel and conference center slated for the site call for a reuse of the historic portion of the trolley building. The tannery building, however, is not included in these plans, indicating that the building may be demolished.
Project developers came under fire at a recent city public hearing for what some called a failure to involve local preservationists in the process. Richard Griffin, the city’s economic development director and chief spokesperson for the hotel project, maintained that the group hired a private preservation consultant for feedback.
But Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak said that “having a preservation team is not the same thing as listening to local preservationists.”
Scott Winnette, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, agreed.
“Personally, I wish the five-year exploration of this project ... included a voice for historic preservation, but unfortunately it did not,” Winnette said at a public hearing Thursday.
Input from city historic preservation planners and commission was never sought, according to Winnette. Historic preservation planner Lisa Mroszczyk Murphy confirmed that her department’s staff members were not consulted on the project, apart from two informational meetings earlier this year.
While the hotel developers were not required to seek preliminary input before submitting applications to the commission, many property owners within the downtown historic district do, she said.
Other preservation groups, such as Frederick Preservation Trust, have felt disenfranchised, Moscato said. He advocated for the two groups to work in tandem, instead of opposition.
“Too often, the perception is that historic preservation and economic development are mutually exclusive. ... We disagree,” he said.
Moscato described the downtown hotel project as one that could have been a “collaborative gem,” representing preservation and development interests. The tannery, for example, could be creatively incorporated into the project as a meeting space, wedding venue, interactive museum or even a steakhouse restaurant as a tribute to its ties to the tanning and poultry industries.
By excluding local historic preservation staff and stakeholders from discussion and preliminary project plans, those opportunities were lost, he said.
Following the rules
The consequences of this failure to communicate and collaborate may jeopardize the project as it goes through the requisite HPC public hearing and approval processes.
Kuzemchak has repeatedly highlighted the role of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission in determining if and how the project can move forward. Demolition of the tannery will require approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, as will the new site design.
“My concern is that we’re making the assumption ... that this is just going to happen,” she said, referring to renderings and designs. “I don’t want people to see these pretty pictures and just assume that’s exactly what’s going to get approved.”
Winnette warned that if the commission finds that the tannery contributes historically to the site, it may be unable to grant a demolition request based on its guidelines. And with the site in the Frederick Town Historic District, design plans will be subject to stringent guidelines dictating everything from building materials to height, color and signage.
Based on preliminary renderings, Moscato wrote that the project would “absolutely not” meet design requirements of the downtown historic district.
Although the city is a key stakeholder in the project — Griffin coordinated recent efforts to seek city approval on a memorandum of understanding with Plamondon — Winnette pledged that the commission would review the project with the same scrutiny as every other application.
“There is no rubber stamp resting on this,” he said.
Kuzemchak noted the need for the city to adhere to its own processes.
“We tout the economic benefits of historic preservation, so let’s not talk out of both sides of our mouth,” she said.
The $82.47 million project cost includes a 200-room hotel with 24,000 square feet of conference center space with on-site parking, infrastructure improvements and a sixth city parking deck at the site of the old Frederick News-Post building.
The property at 200 and 212 E. Patrick St. is currently owned by a business entity formed by members of the Randall family. The Randall family also owns the parent company of The Frederick News-Post.