Two Contrasting Visions: An Architect’s Perspective

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Editor’s Note:  The author is the architect of the Garfield Center’s lobby and marquee, however the opinions he offers here are his own professional point of view.

VISION I – The Historic District’s Living Town – As Enacted

Those who oppose the Garfield Center’s programmable LED screen have found their champion in the Planning Commission.  Chestertown’s Planning Commission has answered the Historic District Commission’s “Yes we can!” with a resounding “No, you can not!”  The Town Council will ultimately decide.

It’s healthy for Chestertown, that we debate contrasting visions of what our future should be.  But which one is right for our community?  One side is willing to embrace the capabilities of an emerging technology, believing if we are judicious, we can harness its strengths to the benefit of our historic town. The other side fears there is no way to control these capabilities.  They will ruin the historic atmosphere we all cherish, and undermine our appeal to tourism dollars. Let’s take a clear-eyed look at both of these visions, and at their underpinnings in Chestertown’s law.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.02.31 AM

At issue is the black rectangle we can see above the two doors. The Garfield Center has proposed to install a programmable LED display there, every bit as colorful as the Hollywood posters which originally occupied this space.  Chestertown’s Historic District Commission (HDC) agrees that is appropriate.  The Planning Commission says it is not.  Many on both sides passionately believe, whether the Town Council decides to go forward with this sign or not, that decision will have long term affects on the character of Chestertown, and the viability of our Historic Marketplace.

Programmable screens, also called LED displays, are a new sign technology with powerful communications capability.  Like our television screens, they can just as easily display the sweep and serenity of a national park landscape, or the cacophony of a car crash.  The ‘definitely-nots’ fear that range in capability, saying no one can control it.  The ‘yes-we-cans’ point out the screen only displays what the owner programs his computer to have it show.  If the screen is high resolution and the owner motivated to communicate respectfully, then the screen will behave as a good citizen should, and stay within any limitations the community sets.

Rehabilitating the Marquee

The Garfield began its permitting odyssey in 2010, almost three years ago, as part of its rehabilitation of the lobby.  With HDC and Maryland Historical Trust approval, workmen removed the three 1960’s commercial doors (seen below), and demolished the letter board sign above them.  Shortly after that, the HDC gave approval for the old marquee to be removed to a shop in Ohio for refurbishing.

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The marquee languished when it was discovered that the theater’s roof was leaking.  The re-roofing donor asked the theater’s architect to investigate.  A structural engineer found the old roof trusses inadequate to support the heavy snow drifts an extreme storm could pile up.  Then it was discovered that the ruddy tiles at the top of the façade weren’t terracotta as they seemed from the street, but rusting sheet metal with so many holes that the cornice below them was rotting.  The job was much more urgent and complex than initially anticipated.

The Garfield team finally brought its plans for the marquee’s revival to the HDC in June of 2012.  Those plans could have proposed to restore the marquee, but the Garfield Center had chosen historic rehabilitation instead.

Many people think the HDC’s primary job is to say no to change, but Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning more broadly charges them with nurturing the vitality of our Historic District:

The purpose of this Historic Areas Zoning shall be to safeguard the heritage of the municipal corporation by preserving   the district therein which reflects elements of its cultural, social, economic, political or architectural history; to stabilize and improve property values in such a district; to foster civic beauty; to strengthen the local economy; and to promote the use and preservation of Historic Districts for the education, welfare and pleasure of the residents of the county or of the municipal corporation.

As can be seen by the emphasis added, Chestertown’s zoning law charges the HDC with promoting the economic wellbeing of the Historic District, as well as ensuring that its historic assets are not lost.  Their responsibility for economics is nowhere more important than in managing the vitality of our Historic Marketplace, at the heart of which we find the Garfield Center for the Arts.

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The Era of Momentous Change 

The economics of this theater were running in its favor during the first era of its existence (1930s & 40s) which we could call the “Era of the Hollywood Poster,” as that form of signage prevailed.   But, we could just as well call it the “Era of the Automobile” or the “Era of Electrification” or the “Era of Bright Lights”, as the horse was giving way to the horseless carriage, roads were being paved, electric wires jumping from building to building, and street lights erected.  At the time, many people were likely thrilled by this groundswell of “progress”, while others felt threatened by change.  What matters is, all of these developments occurred within Chestertown’s “Period of Historic Significance”, 1706 – 1939, albeit toward the end.

Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning tells the HDC it must protect our heritage of every era within those dates, the artifacts and attitude of the Roaring Twenties, along with everything more staid from previous eras, much of which the Roaring Twenties was rebelling against.   In other words, they must preserve the authenticity of the differences we have inherited from our diverse “cultural, social, economic, political, and architectural history”.

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When the “New Lyceum” (as this theater was originally named) was designed, theaters almost universally featured marquees as their gateways to entertainment, and almost all of these sported lights aplenty. The marquee’s electrification is part and parcel of the momentous change dominating all spheres of culture and commerce back then.

Why Businesses need Rehabilitation

By the 1970s the downtown theater business had gone bust, which is essentially why this elegant Renaissance Revival building has ended up in the hands of a not-for-profit. The Garfield Center has no museum aspirations, and every need to make itself financially viable.  They needed their lobby back, not in its original glory, but as an efficient generator of revenue streams:  ticketing, workspace for volunteers, concessions, and as an independent rentable venue itself.  The Garfield chose Historic Rehabilitation as their path forward.

At the National Park Service, the scholars at the top of our nation’s preservation hierarchy explain:

Rehabilitation is defined as the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.

As a case in point, the Maryland Historical Trust, which oversaw a $100,000 preservation grant and approved the Garfield’s lobby rehabilitation plans, had no problem with building a bar where the original doorways to the auditorium still stand, as long as all aspects of these doorways are preserved.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.11.36 AMAs historic preservation professionals, MHT understands concessions are an important profit center for any theater.  They agreed the counter and cabinetry could be built around one of the three doorway jambs (as you can see has been done in the photo above) provided there is no loss of historic materials.  The historic jamb (on the right above) must all be there, if the concessions cabinetry is ever removed.

What is important here is that a proper restoration returns a structure to its original configuration at some target date(s), 1928 for example.  Rehabilitations are obliged to preserve all historic features intact, but beyond that they can intermingle new features to make the structure more functional, including to achieve business purposes.  Rehabilitations are not obligated to reconstruct historic features which no longer exist, regardless of how certain the evidence is of what had been there.  As can be imagined, commercial property owners choose historic rehabilitation as their path forward, because as a preservation strategy, it allows the addition of contemporary features to make their facilities economically viable.  The National Park Service puts it this way:

Of the four treatments [allowed], only Rehabilitation includes an opportunity to make possible an efficient contemporary use through alterations and additions.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.13.02 AM

In its marquee rehabilitation, the Garfield Center proposed the following contemporary (2012) features:

        • The LED lights on the beams are pear-shaped like the originals, but frosted.
        • The Art Glass (in the reproduction pendants) fulfills a 2012 color scheme.
        • The ceiling’s globe-shaped LEDs are arranged in a 2012 pattern.
        • The Coffered Ceiling is of contemporary 2012 design.
        • The doors and door framing are likewise new.

Chestertown’s Historic District Commission unanimously approved them all.

For example, the Garfield team brought a wired socket and samples of both types of LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs to the HDC’s hearing to be sure everyone understood what they were exactly, and explained that such bulbs use only one tenth of the electricity that conventional incandescent lights consume.  After the HDC had seen these bulbs illuminated, they agreed energy efficient lights are appropriate in this specific historic context.

Change is Inevitable

People sometimes think the HDC can require them to restore their historic building, for example, to remove old features, which may have existed for decades, but aren’t historically appropriate.  However, the Town’s Historic Areas Zoning doesn’t give them that power.  For example, the Garfield Center had the right to keep the pair of 2 x 4 fluorescent office light fixtures if it wanted to, along with the ceiling’s barn-roofing finish.  Historic rehabilitation protects the historic material that still exists.  Beyond that, an owner can leave existing discordant features in place, and add new ones, as long as the outcome is doing no harm to its historic context.

In its statement of “Purpose”, Chestertown’s Historic District Design Guidelines explains:

These guidelines provide the Historic District Commission (HDC) and property owners with guidance on appropriate methods for the upkeep and rehabilitation of the town’s historic buildings. They also assist in the design of new construction in the historic district, whether these are additions to existing structures or entirely new buildings.  The guidelines do not seek to prevent change.  Change is inevitable in any living town, and these guidelines are aimed at ensuring that change is appropriate to Chestertowns unique character. The HDC uses the Historic District Design Guidelines and applies the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation to evaluate the appropriateness of changes to a building and to the Historic District as a whole.  <Emphasis added>

The emphasized text is a strong statement of our town’s vision of how Chestertown’s Historic District can evolve, and it is enacted law.  We will see later the Planning Commission’s Comprehensive Plan also welcomes new structures, although the Zoning Administrator and Planning Commission are arguing in the case of LED signs, it should not.

Note that the HDC must use the Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation (for updating a structure) and not the Secretary’s Standards for Preservation (which does not allow any new features) and not the Secretary’s Standards for Restoration (the museum approach for returning to a historic appearance).  Note also that the HDC is to apply these Rehabilitation Standards “to evaluate the appropriateness of changes to a building and to the Historic District as a whole.

The Shock of Stam Hall

Has the Historic District changed much since its 18th Century origins?  It may help to recognize that the New Lyceum was built toward the end of Chestertown’s Period of Historic Significance (1706–1939), on the block of High Street which is most urban.  It was wedged between Stam Hall (1886), one of the town’s most massive buildings, and the three-story porch of the Imperial Hotel (1909).

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.14.29 AM

Stam Hall (pictured above) was built at the end of one of the Eastern Shore’s boom periods, when canning was king and steamships plied the rivers delivering farm and orchard bounty to the hungry urban areas, growing, growing across the Bay.  Stam Hall interjects French Second Empire urbanism smack in the middle of this English 18th  century seaport.  But as an intrusion, it is not alone.  A “movable bridge” enabled traffic to cross the Chester River as early as 1821, followed by a timber bridge some decades later, and the Railroad arrived in 1902.

Mr. Stam, whose drug store occupied the ground story, was quite the entrepreneur.  He must have wanted to boost Chestertown beyond its 18th C. roots, as his building portrays itself as a center for 19th C. growth and renewal.  But in the 1880s, a peach blight stalled Chestertown’s economy, and that was followed by a series of recessions in 1887, 1890, and 1893.  Like the rest of the country, Chestertown didn’t boom again until after the (1919-1920) depression which followed the First World War.  Then came the Roaring Twenties, our Renaissance Revival theater, and its electrified marquee.

As disruptive as these structures must have seemed, the automobile is surely the most disruptive of all.  As we can see in the picture above, they are everywhere.  Each vehicle is operated without any historic restrictions, and some by chicken-neckers like me.  As a community, we do not feel compelled to write regulations that require we move about after dusk with only our parking lights on.  I’m not arguing against regulation, only trying to make two simple points:   #1:  We human beings are quite capable of adapting to change.  And #2:  Even as disruptive as it is, the car has not killed our Historic District’s appeal.

Why Strict and Why Lenient

At best, government can nurture the growth initiated by property owners, being careful to guide it, without over-controlling.  Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning puts it this way:

The Commission shall be strict in its judgment of plans for those structures deemed to be valuable … [and] lenient in its judgment of plans … involving new construction, unless such plans would seriously impair the historical or architectural integrity of the surrounding area.

Requiring leniency may seem counterintuitive, and indeed some preservationists want to take an authoritarian stand against anything that could possibly vitiate the purity of the historic district, but they are forgetting a formative truth.  The historic district they want to protect from what our current culture and economics would do – this precious historic district is itself a product of decades and decades of unregulated change, driven by all sorts of cultural and economic impulses, with nary a preservationist hand on the tiller.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.16.02 AM

There is nothing in the Historic Rehabilitation Standards which empowers the HDC to reject new features just because they do not like them.  The closest such Standards are:

9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property.  The new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.

10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

In short, Standard 9 requires new features be compatible with their historic context, and observably new.  Standard 10 recognizes new features will come and go, and we want our heritage whole when they go.  The HDC has judged that the Garfield’s screen meets these Standards.

To Sieve or Not to Sieve

Often what is of greatest value about any era, is controversial when coming into being, Art Nouveau, for example, is the source of the pejorative word ‘gaudy’ but Barcelona’s appeal and financial wellbeing owe a considerable debt to the creativity of their native son, a “Modernista” named Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), and so does the rest of the world for his work and that of his compatriots.  The era is variously known as Art Nouveau, De Stÿl, Jugendstil, Stile Liberty, Modernisme, and in America, as Arts & Crafts.  It spans from 1890-1910 worldwide, but as mentioned, Chestertown was in an economic slump back then, so we have precious little of its influence here.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.16.53 AM

We do have one derivative of California Arts and Crafts (pictured above) standing at 311 Washington Avenue.  It was likely ordered from a catalog, an innovation in marketing which carried Sears & Roebuck to dominance in the 20th Century.  Their catalogs sold whole houses, as well as everything in them.  This house came to Chestertown in boxes by train, the dominant form of transportation back then.  Our railroad tracks are gone now, and catalogs no longer dominate marketing, but this house still stands as an artifact of their economic reach, despite the round river stone being foreign to our geological heritage.  Were these technologies disruptive?  For local architecture and business, absolutely!  But is it wise of government to prohibit for the sake of purity?

If we put ourselves in the place of our grandchildren, won’t we want Chestertown to reflect “the elements of its cultural, social, economic, political [and] architectural history” from our own era?  As a “Living Town” do we really want our government putting our present and future through a sieve of the past?

For forty years I am proud to call myself a preservationist, but much more so because at the national level, and in Chestertown’s Historic Areas law, there is the wisdom and humility to restrict change only when it would destroy historic fabric, and never in an effort to stop innovation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1002-2013 2 VISIONS – PART 1 FOR PUB 2

 

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Fletcher R. Hall says

    The vote on the lighting of the marquee will be a real test for the town council. This is a vote where real leadership will be demanded. Leadership to determine if the town council wants to continue to live in the past or move forward with feasible retail and entertainment venues. Such venues which will help in creating a sustainable and economically sucessful town.

    Fletcher R.Hall
    Chestertown

  2. Stu Cawley says

    I have absolutely no quibbles w/ any of Mr. Newlin’s well reasoned & amply researched points here. Our HDC isn’t charged w/ merely protecting historic bldgs & preserving them in amber but w/ “ensuring that any change is in keeping w/ Chestertown’s unique character,” as he quotes from its Design Guidelines. Striving to maintain a reasonable balance between preservation & economic vitality is always going to require a case-by-case analysis. (As a side note, what I see as the rapid gentrification of Chestertown, although it may very well help preserve the town’s domestic architecture for future generations, seems to be coming at the cost of much of our black population being priced out of town, a disturbing trend, given the approximately even split in numbers between its black & white residents for the past three centuries.)

    I’m thrilled w/ the new marquee. While it includes several modern features, they’re each practical & in no way detract from the feel & look of the overall design. It looks period-appropriate, adds dash & glamor to the Garfield’s facade, & makes the bldg instantly recognizable as a theater.

    That said, I have to concur w/ the PC re. their decision re. the Garfield’s LED lights request. I totally buy the argument that an LED lighting system is simply the modern technological equivalent of the oversized posters & bright lights of yesteryear, but I fail to see how it would add any value, increase in business, or improved visual appeal to the Garfield Center. The 200 block of High St seems to have at least as much pedestrian traffic as vehicular, what vehicular traffic there is moves slowly enough to read movie posters or manual movable-letter signage, &, w/ its terminus at the town dock, there is so little thru traffic that I’d be willing to bet that 20% of the southbound traffic pulls an illegal U-turn at the intersection of Queen & High.

    Given all that, it strikes me that almost every human, whether local or tourist, traveling on the 200 block of High St is aware that the Garfield is an operational theater (made even more apparent by the striking new marquee) & is already fully able to avail themselves of the specifics of current & upcoming attractions.

    In short, I can’t imagine there are many in town who don’t wish the Garfield every possible success & hope to see it thrive indefinitely, yet the poor trade-off of risk-to-benefit in this instance (w/ much of that risk coming in the form of other organizations’ & businesses’ use of LED signage) makes the PC’s denial the right move IMO.

    • Rick Balaban says

      Stu Cawley has found the right balance and crafted an elegant note. (Thank you Mr. Cawley) The theater is important, the marquee is terrific and sends all the right messages, but the LED screen is an unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, adjunct.

      • Peter Newlin says

        Are you the same Mr. Balaban, who lives in London, owns a condo on Water Street, and is suing the Historic District Commission and the Garfield Center just because you disagreed with the decision (twice) made to approve an LED sign, pursuant to the laws and regulations explained above?

        If you are indeed Mr. Balaban, I must tell you that such lawsuits, in my opinion, are the enemy of fair government and due process, as their primary tactic is to scare off those who have the courage to decide in favor of “Living” in a living town.

        In any event, I would welcome more of your thoughts regarding what risks you see.

        • Steve Arlins says

          Don’t you mean LED screen?

          • Peter Newlin says

            As noted in the 4th paragraph from the top: “Programmable screens, also called LED displays, are a new sign technology with powerful communications capability.” They are refered to in various ways, for example, the Town’s letter to the Garfield variously uses the phrases: “programmable LED lighting panel” and “LED lighting panel” and “programmable LED lighting”.

            I would point out that the LED screen is only the outside part of the sign, which displays the message and effects that the inside part of the sign, on computer, instructs the sign to display. The i-Sign at the corner of Cross and Hign is different, in that it is both the control mechanism and the screen.

            I think everyone agrees the screen is a part of the sign. The HDC approved it as a sign after a lengthy discussion of the prohibition of “internally illuminated cabinet signs.” At that meeting, the Zoning Administrator told them that prohibition had been written in the 1980s. The HDC subsequently concluded a phrase written ca. 1980 could NOT have meant this electronic technology of much more recent innovation. It meant the internally illuminated letter board which the theatre had had since the 1950s or there abouts, and which although never permitted, was grandfathered.

            I agree definitions matter. So do the facts of approval.

    • Holly Geddes says

      “…but I fail to see how it would add any value, increase in business, or improved visual appeal to the Garfield Center.”

      Some individuals may not see the value. However, the DCA (organization of downtown businesses) wrote a letter asking for the sign to be permitted. They saw the value. Also, an overwhelming majority of the residents in the neighborhood submitted a petition to allow the sign. As I took petition pages around, many expressed opinions that said the sign would add color or vibrancy or beauty to the neighborhood. For those who oppose the sign, these facts might indicate that those closest to living with the sign see value in adding it to a theater.

  3. eliott bruce says

    Very very well done.Think the pc has to be constant and have all the bill boards on all windows in stores take out of windows. Covering windows with cardboard takes away look of town. Did they even have cardboard in 1700s. Have to install hitching posts instead of parking space for those who ride to town.Clock tower should state time and turn back watch to 1750.

  4. This strikes me as such a trivial issue. Here’s an organization that wants to be an anchor for a reinvigorated downtown, a la the Avalon in Easton. Perhaps it’s even more critical that we embrace this asset, as Easton had the luxury to say “We’re going in a new direction. We’re going full bore with the reach-the-beach economiuc plan.”

    So all this time I thought we were talking about a large, wrap-around marquee, that would adorn the existing awning. Come to find out, we’re talking about a small surface area affixed to the building, ten feet within the structure’s most extreme point. That’s not trivia, that’s minutiae.

    Would anyone here argue that Oriole Park (a structure that seemlessly combines historical and modern elements, which also is an asset to Baltimore’s downtown) is gaudy and harmful to the fabric of Baltimore?

  5. Johnny Roe Hudson says

    I wholeheartedly support the beautiful Garfield Center and Chesapeake Architects to receive their LED screen. Historically, the LED screen is so very close to the original New Lycem Poster, which use to hang directly below the old Marquee in the 30’s thru 50’s, I can’t believe the historians of Chestertown are having such a disconnect with bridging the vision. The Garfield Center and their constituencies believe they would be better represented to display up coming events through a clean, programmable and efficient LED screen. Not by scotch taping flyers to the window. I ask, what downtown business-to date-is more financially sound after 50 years. And during such a trying times of our downtown economy, why are we giving The Garfield Center such a hard time over a small historical technically. We should be celebrating that we have such wonderful theater. As a lifelong resident I’m willing to go the extra yard on this one. With a petition or a vote to the town’s people in November. We all need to get behind The Garfield Center “to let them have their LED screen”!!! Johnny Roe Hudson, (443-480-0258). johnhudson@mmandhf.com

    • Peter Newlin says

      Thank you very much, My Hudson, for adding your insights in this conversation. Can I just clarify that “the historians” you are talking about as “having such a disconnect ” are on the Planning Commission, not on the Historic District Commission. It is the PC who want to Town Council to impose blanket prohibitions on this new signage technology.

      One might expect the Historic District Commission to resist innovation, but Chestertown’s HDC has twice approved the Garfield’s LED sign. In fact, in their second approval, the HDC had the courage to saddle themselves with overseeing a 6-month exploration of how the screen can be operated so as to be appropriate on this particular (Roaring Twenties) building, and appropriate in its specific historic setting. After that exploration period, the HDC has stipulated that the Garfield Center must return for an additional hearing, at which the HDC says they may set additional restrictions. It is even possible for the HDC to reguire an annual review of the screen’s behavior; they have the authority to do so.

      In my opinion, the HDC is trying its level best “to safeguard the heritage” of our Historic Marketplace, and “to strengthen [its] local economy”. We should praise them, but if these historic preservation and economic stimulus benefits are to be secured, the HDC will need the support of a majority of the Town Council.

  6. R. Dennis Hager says

    It is with trepidation that I comment on this article. I do so only because I hold Peter Newlin in high regard and have experienced similar issues from both the governmental and business perspective. I lived in the historic district of Chestertown for close to 12 years (1977-1989) and subsequently moved to Millington. I have owned an operated a business in Millington for 26 years. I was also Mayor of Millington for 14 years during which time I opened a second business. Some readers may recall that as Mayor, I dealt with an issue when a mural was painted on a building in violation of the Town’s sign ordinance. It was one of the most unpleasant situations I dealt with as Mayor.

    The broad question here is about land use (Planning and Zoning), but can be narrowed down to the seemingly simple issue of signs and sign ordinances. Sign ordinances are anything but simple.

    Ordinances are laws and can be challenged in court. Before any Town official enacts or enforces an ordinance, (s)he would be well-advised to know how the ordinance would fare in court. To get a perspective, I would recommend perusing http://www.signlaw.com

    After having reviewed the Chestertown sign ordinance, there is one little line that should not be overlooked.

    “No sign shall have flashing lights or some other illuminating device which has a changing light intensity, brightness or color.”

    Is there any reason to have a programmable LED sign that does not have a changing light intensity, brightness or color?

    It is obvious that granting a permit for any programmable LED sign will require that the ordinance be amended or rewritten. As a former Town official, I believe that public safety responsibility trumps any concern for aesthetics. I have read a comment suggesting that the proposed sign would not be a distraction for motorists in the 200 block of High Street. Having lived in Chestertown and having walked and driven the street many times, I would respectfully disagree. The signs would be visible to both pedestrian and motor traffic. Considering that the street is frequently used by students, visitors and older (my age) citizens, the distraction of a programmable LED sign could result in pedestrian mortality.

    Lest one thinks that this situation is totally unique to Chestertown, do a little exercise:
    Google “digital sign pedestrian motorist distraction”.

    • Keith Thompson says

      “Considering that the street is frequently used by students, visitors and older (my age) citizens, the distraction of a programmable LED sign could result in pedestrian mortality.”

      But why specifically would a programmable LED sign potentially result in a pedestrian mortality and not a marquee, or even a sign board on the street?

      • R. Dennis Hager says

        Is the proposed programmable LED going to show static images for extended periods or change every few seconds? As long as the images are static and change at a rate 2 to 3 times the amount of time it takes to walk across the street, then there would be little difference.

        If you perused http://www.signlaw.com there is a section on digital signs, you may have missed this line. “Cities that allow digital signs often set rules about hold times, time of transition between images, and brightness of the screen.” Cities are not setting these rules for the aesthetics. They are doing it because they are concerned about safety.

        • Keith Thompson says

          My understanding is that the Garfield’s proposed programmable LED sign is essentially an electronic marquee. The idea is that the marquee will promote shows at the Garfield as well as other town events and the programmable element is essentially a way to change the marquee message via a computer rather than manually from someone climbing a ladder. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sure Peter Newlin or someone in the know will correct me.

          • Peter Newlin says

            You’ve got it mostly right, Kieth:

            Except the LED sign is mounted above the doors and under the marquee, where it will be bathed in the (LED) light of the marquee’s ceiling. (See the images in the essay above.)

            You can see the Garfield’s screen in action in the video embedded here:
            http://chestertownspy.com/2013/02/11/op-ed-the-garfield-board-of-directors-case-for-led-screen-on-high-street/

            You are correct that this new technology does not require a staff member to stand on a ladder putting up plastic letters by hand, one by one. Instead, the messages are entered on the theater’s computer, along with all of the other settings that determine what the messages say, in what colors, how bright, how long the message dwells on the screen, and how gentle the transitions to the next message. The same people who are responsible for the shows that appear on the Garfield Center’s stage, will also be resposible for what is staged on this mini opportunity for community creativity on the street.

            The Garfield’s Permit Documents include a “Screen Operating Manual” which stipulates how the Garfield Center will be controlling all of these settings, to restrict the sign’s behavior so it will be a “good citizen” in its historic context. Copies of these permit drawings and Operating Manual can be seen at the Town Hall, Kent County Library, and upon request as a free handout at the Garfield theater. The Historic District Commission has said it will oversee the Garfield’s 6-month exploration (learning curve) and then set new restrictions if need be.

            If you have any other questions, I’ll be happy to answer them as best I can.

  7. I read this article and the comments with interest. There’s no doubt that this is a complicated issue. I served on the Historic District Commission for a dozen or so years, so I have my own opinions on this, but I’m not going to second guess the current commissioners. But I do see some misunderstanding of the Historic District Design Guidelines in both the article and the comments.

    Focusing on a section of the Historic Area Design Guidelines that says “the purpose of this Historic Areas Zoning shall be to…stabilize and improve property values in such a district; to foster civic beauty; to strengthen the local economy”, the article asserts that “Chestertown’s zoning law charges the HDC with promoting the economic wellbeing of the Historic District, as well as ensuring that its historic assets are not lost.” This is a misreading of the guidelines and their intent. The HDC’s role is not to evaluate applications in light of their economic impact of the town. Instead it is: 1) to evaluate the historic significance of the structure under consideration; and 2) if the structure contributes to the historic district, ensure that historic fabric is not lost and that modifications do not alter the historic character of the building or its surroundings. The HDC promotes economic well-being only insofar as protecting a district’s historic character has been proven in place after place, in study after study, to increase property values. It is the presence of historic district’s protections that aid the economy and real estate values, not the picking and choosing of specific elements of a plan. Commissioners are not supposed to try and assess whether a specific application (or part thereof) will generate economic activity or not, and they are appointed based on their understanding of architectural history and preservation, not of economics or business.

    The article also quotes the guidelines as stating that “The Commission shall be strict in its judgment of plans for those structures deemed to be valuable … [and] lenient in its judgment of plans … involving new construction.” The article then asserts that “there is nothing in the Historic Rehabilitation Standards which empowers the HDC to reject new features just because they do not like them.” This is very true. Decisions must be based on the standards and the guidelines. But the emphasis on “features” seems to imply that because the proposed LED sign is new construction, it must be viewed leniently. This is not at all the case. The guidelines (and the underlying state enabling legislation) require leniency ONLY in the case of a non-significant building or in new construction. This clause is NOT aimed at specific elements of a project, but rather in the significance of the building itself. In fact, the law requires that ALL elements of a proposal for a significant structure be judged strictly. The Prince is unquestionably a significant structure, and every element of the application, including the sign, must be evaluated strictly, according to the guidelines.

    Finally, the article states that “there is the wisdom and humility to restrict change only when it would destroy historic fabric, and never in an effort to stop innovation.” While the intent of the guidelines has never been to stifle innovation, it is by no means true that change is ruled out only when it will destroy historic fabric. Change that would threaten the historic look of a building or change the character of a streetscape is also something that the guidelines seek to avoid.

    These may seem like quibbles, but they are central to an understanding of how the Historic District Commission is supposed to operate – and why the historic area zoning and guidelines have protected property values and helped Chestertown avoid the blight visited on so many other rural towns. The Commission should apply the guidelines strictly on significant structures, without venturing out of their expertise to assess the applicant’s business plan or looking for loopholes to make an exception for any project or any applicant. So while I personally find it hard to believe that an LED sign will make or break the Prince, or even contribute marginally to its economic viability, that is irrelevant. The only question is appropriateness based on the guidelines and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. And I suggest that these are by no means trivial issues. Historic district guidelines, sign ordinances, and zoning requirements all exist for good reasons, and they should be applied fairly and consistently, even if they’re not always convenient.

    • Keith Thompson says

      “Historic district guidelines, sign ordinances, and zoning requirements all exist for good reasons, and they should be applied fairly and consistently, even if they’re not always convenient.”

      Precisely, and under this line of reasoning…the Garfield Center ‘s proposed LED sign is as fair and as consistent as the i-sign.

      • John Seidel says

        Which just goes to show that when an applicant argues that their project is a “one off” or an exception, or that it won’t establish a precedent, they’re usually wrong. However, it is worth pointing out a very significant difference between these two issues. The Pince’s LED sign is on and a part of the building. The I-sign is a stand-alone, separate feature or structure. There is a difference in how these two proposals should be considered under the law and the guidelines.

        • Keith Thompson says

          And when you get to the point of having decisions based on technicalities such as if a structure is attached to a building or not, I begin to question the reasons why such technicalities exist within the ordinances and how these technicalities can lead to arbitrary decision-making.

          What I do find interesting about the I-sign is that it is considered a stand alone structure and yet it basically rests alongside the side of a building. I’d argue that if it was meant to be a stand alone feature, it should stand alone on the sidewalk and not be sitting alongside a building. It may be a technical distinction, but it’s still arbitrary in my mind.

          • John Seidel says

            You can call it arbitrary, but I ‘d say there’s a world of difference between something at ground level, not attached to a building, and not having an impact on the structure or its fabric, vs. a sign that is visible from up and down the street, above head level, and that is attached to and a part of the building. I’m not taking a position on whether one or the other should be approved or denied, merely pointing out that they’re very different. One becomes part of the facade of a structure, while the other is obviously not part of the structure.

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