City residents and visitors alike treasure Frederick’s historic district, an odd-shaped section of the downtown area whose architecture the city sought to protect in a special zone (overlay). Decisions on maintaining that architecture and identifying new construction appropriate for the Historic District were assigned to a city-created Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), established about four decades ago. The HPC interprets requirements in its 2019 design guidelines for ensuring the architectural integrity of its contributing buildings—that is, structures that are greater than 50 years old—as well as any new construction proposed for the district.
The HPC has been vigorous in its protection of the district’s contributing structures for its entire existence, deciding on the window sizes, materials, sills, shutters, front doors, stoops, roofs, etc., basically almost all building exteriors in the area, in order to preserve architectural features of the past. New property owners in the district are often unaware of the restrictions on the renovations they may undertake and hence, some frustration occasionally arises when the HPC rejects proposed alterations. However, most of the time, HPC protections are welcomed by residents as they guarantee the character we all sought in living in the Historic District.
This respect for the HPC from city residents is now seriously threatened with pending decisions on new construction (and whether the HPC members will follow their own 2019 design guidelines). Since June, there has been an ongoing review of a plan to develop townhouses on Maxwell Avenue between East 4th and 5th Streets. The proposal has been to build between five and eight, 3- to 4-story townhouses as infill in a lot currently occupied by non-contributing one-story garages along the avenue. The most recent design calls for five, three-story townhouses with a penthouse/rooftop deck as the fourth floor and first floor street-facing garages set back 20 feet from the sidewalk.
We, the neighbors surrounding the proposed construction and other residents of the Historic District, have urged the HPC to reject this design as it fails to meet many criteria in its own design guidelines as well as the pending 2020 City Comprehensive Plan. The massing of the proposed development is too large for the site. A penthouse/rooftop deck (not observed in the Historic District) basically establishes a fourth floor that will overwhelm the surrounding neighborhood. The plan also includes street-facing garages found nowhere in the Historic District.
Both the guidelines and the Comprehensive Plan repeatedly state new construction should be consistent with the surrounding neighborhood and the Historic District. City staff and the developer suggest that because that block has no current contributing structures, the development should be accepted. The height is justified because the development across Maxwell Avenue was allowed by the HPC in 2005.
We assert that is faulty logic. The guidelines define the neighborhood and the Historic District, not the immediate non-contributing structures, and direct what can be built. Two other homes on this same block of Maxwell were accepted by the HPC two years ago and complement the neighborhood, so why not use these to define the block? Further, eight new homes with compatible designs on East 5th and four on East 6th streets have received HPC support, so why not these as models to consider?
The HPC’s reasoning—justifying decisions based on non-contributing designs—sets a very slippery slope for all future construction in the Historic District’s alleys, i.e., a precedent that will be used to justify similar construction on Chapel, Maxwell, and Klineharts alleys from 7th Street to East Patrick Street for decades to come.
Would street-facing garages or roof-top decks be allowed on East Church? Are alleys perceived as second-class streets not subject to the same new construction criteria of the main streets? Both define the Historic District. Either protect both with the same criteria or remove the overlay district as it will no longer maintain the character so clearly defined by our historic downtown.
HPC members, as stewards of the Historic District, we call on you to make the choices that ensure the district’s historical integrity now and for the future. Please do the job established in the mission for the Historic District and so noted in your own guidelines.
The letter writers are all residents of Frederick’s historic district.