Washington College’s application for a demolition permit for the Chestertown Armory has generated a lot of comment. That’s a good thing, demonstrating yet again how much this community cares about its historic resources. As someone who has spent his career in dealing with various areas of historic preservation, including research, teaching, service on the Chestertown Historic Commission, the Maryland Historical Trust, and a variety of other boards and commissions, I understand the concerns when the demolition of an historic structure is proposed. But our reactions have to be rational, free of emotion, and based on facts. I therefore want to address some misconceptions and unfounded suggestions that have emerged in this recent debate. To be clear, I am doing so as a private citizen, NOT as a representative of Washington College.
Concerns have been raised about the process being followed. For anyone who wasn’t present in the two meetings where this application was heard, I understand why there might be questions. So let’s look at the process. Demolition requests in the Historic District typically – but not always – follow a two-hearing process. At the first hearing, only the issue of significance usually is considered. At the second hearing, the HDC takes formal action to approve or decline the application.
Washington College has never contested the significance of the building. It is on the National Register. The only question is whether or not it can be adequately remediated and then renovated. The College anticipated going through the prescribed two-hearing process and was fully prepared to do so. Because it was not contesting significance, there really was nothing bearing on significance to submit prior to this first hearing of the HDC, held on October 5. That being the case – maybe one of the few instances in which significance is not being contested – a waiver of the 25-day rule for the first hearing was requested and granted. It was anticipated that a full package of materials supporting the demolition permit would be submitted to the HDC at this first hearing, thereby exceeding the 25-day submission requirement for the second hearing on the actual demolition request. I do not believe for a second that there was any intent whatsoever to circumvent the rules on notice and pre-submission.
In the October 5 hearing, the Commission heard that significance was not contested, but also was given the background to the issues and the conclusions of the recent study that prompted the demo request. The Commissioners were thoughtful and asked good questions. At the end of the presentation and discussion, the Historic District Commission seemed satisfied with the presentation and materials submitted and a vote to approve demolition was called for and unanimously approved. This was a bit unexpected, but it is by no means unique – it has happened before.
Somewhere in the various comments on this issue, someone indicated that a Commissioner said that the HDC was “told to vote” then and there, with no opportunity for reflection. I was present, and no-one was “told to vote.” That’s not how the process works. A vote was called for, but any commissioner could have objected, slowed the process down, or asked for a second hearing or other change to the process. I’ve seen it happen countless times, and I don’t believe for a second that any of the Commissioners would have simply acquiesced to a vote when they were not comfortable. In my experience, having served on the Commission for over a decade and having watched it for 25 years, the commissioners take their role seriously, ask hard questions, and are independent and not easily swayed by emotion or any form of pressure. To suggest otherwise is insulting and undermines their efforts. I personally believe that their decision was based on the obvious – if there can be no guarantee of successful remediation, it is hard to imagine anyone investing in the building. If no-one will invest, then its fate is sealed no matter what the HDC does. The Historic District Guidelines call on the Commission to determine “whether the building can be put to reasonable beneficial use without the approval of demolition.” The answer in this case is clearly “no.”
As to the adequacy of the application, there is indeed a long list of requirements for a demolition application. But as anyone who has served on such a commission knows, not all are necessarily relevant or in every case necessary. Because this structure was listed on the National Register back in the 1980s, much of the information required in an application is already in the hands of the Town and HDC. For example, there are extensive descriptions, drawings, and photographs of the building in the nomination. The files of the Town contain various graphics of the site and building prepared by STAY back in 2007-2011, when they valiantly but unsuccessfully sought a viable use for the building. And Washington College submitted additional photo documentation and a site plan in its package. A variety of alternative uses, which the Guidelines ask for, have been considered over the years, and many are a matter of public record. Others were presented by College representatives verbally. There are more examples of materials that are considered in such a request, but the Commission may use its discretion in deciding what is relevant and what is required in any given case.
Lurking in some of the letters to the editor and comments is the suggestion of some conspiracy or nefarious plot between the College and … who, exactly? Members of the HDC? The Mayor? The Town Council? To what end? What would these public servants gain from conspiring to ram through a decision that might turn out to be controversial? The premise is frankly absurd, but I guess conspiracy theories are part of the times that we live in. I submit that instead, everyone here has been acting in good faith and trying to do the right thing.
I’ll also note that the hotel group was actually far more excited than I dreamed they would be about the original plan of utilizing the historic core of the Armory. Personally, it seemed to me a stretch that it could be used for their purposes. But they worked very hard and with enthusiasm on plans that incorporated the whole 1930s structure – until the environmental report came back. And to be clear, it is not the lead or asbestos that scares anyone. That’s a red herring. It is the mold problem that is at the root of this and that is the game-changer.
Lest anyone question the College’s commitment to environmental remediation, I’ll point to the way in which it handled at the two Brown Field sites on which Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall is now located. One of these parcels had been contaminated by petroleum products over the course of a century. The other had a legacy of agrichemical pollution that went back to the 1890s. Both parcels were purchased by the College and remediated to residential standards at a cost of several million dollars. As a result, the site was cleaned for construction and we no longer have to worry about these contaminants reaching the Chester River and our ground water. Washington College has clearly demonstrated its commitment to undertaking difficult remediation projects when it makes sense to do so.
I’m disappointed that people for whom I have great respect so quickly jumped on the opposition bandwagon, apparently without contacting anyone at the College or asking for clarification before leaping to the attack. David Turner conflates two separate preservation issues in an attempt to generate opposition to what he sees as the “coming of ugly” – these are the future development of Stepne Manor and the Armory demolition. Stepne Manor has long been designated by the Town as its next growth outlet, over more than a decade of planning, charettes, and public input. Whatever the Planning Commission may have done more recently, the underlying purpose has been consistent and in any event is separate and distinct from the Armory. To conflate the two is to play on emotion rather than logic.
Barbara Jorgenson has raised the issues of procedure and supposed back-room dealing addressed above. She also notes that I made a presentation on behalf of the College, and I have heard some rumbles that perhaps my employer pushed me in a specific direction. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Just in case that’s in anyone’s mind, I’ll point out that back when I served on the HDC, I spearheaded the expansion of the Historic District to include the wonderful Victorians up Washington Avenue, some of the buildings around the Washington College campus, and elsewhere in town. That, too, saw public opposition, and the College’s President at that time, John Toll, asked me to stand down the effort, or to at least exclude any of the buildings associated with the College. I declined. I was then asked to recuse myself since I was an employee of the College. My position was that since I actually was opposing the interests of my employer, rather than following them, no recusal was necessary. Dr. Toll then graciously said that we would simply agree to disagree and I should follow my conscience. I was untenured at the time, and vulnerable, so my point is that I do follow my conscience and my professional judgment and experience in these issues.
Drawing on that experience, I do not believe that any alternative use for this structure will be forthcoming, after the last 16 years and many failed attempts. I know first-hand the dangers posed by mold and its incredibly serious health consequences. Contrary to some opinions expressed in these pages, remediation is anything but easy. The last two decades also have shown us how difficult it has been to find an owner and a use for the Armory. Why does anyone think that will now change? As to the important consideration of public good, what is proposed will be a huge shot in the arm for Chestertown’s economy. But I do not believe for a minute that any investor group will be willing to put up money for a restoration of a compromised building if there is a chance that their investment will be nullified by a recurring mold problem, with the threat of illness, litigation, and a loss of their investment. If others are willing to pony up the funds, or have a viable alternative use in mind, I say get your check book out. I suspect it will be a very different story if you are the one who has to put your capital at risk.
John L. Seidel