Saturday, February 25, 2006

Museum Row Fireworks

A friend asked me today what I thought about the antics at last Tuesday's Historic District Commission's 3-2 vote in favor of the Museum Row Project. I don't know about antics, but it was not a quiet meeting that I attended on February 21.

See the Gwendolyn Glenn's excellent coverage of the meeting and her previous 12/22 , 12/29 stories in the Laurel Leader.

The key point for me to remember is that the HDC is not the final arbitrator of the project. They are only an advisor to the council on revitalization overlay cases. So all of the passionate and reasoned debate at the meeting could not impact a final decision, but only influence the HDC's recommendation to the council. Even an HDC vote against the project could have still gone forward to the council for consideration in their final decision.

I like the current design. It is going to be big, and the lot is small, but I don't believe that it will detract from the neighborhood. Here is an overhead view of the property. And here is a bird's eye view looking south. Here is the plan view of the project. The west end of Main Street will benefit from high-quality, single family homes. The current design is very interesting and it seems to be a good engineering compromise for the site. (But I'm only an engineer and not an historical preservation architect, your actual mileage may vary.)

I'm also torn between the property owner's right to develop their property within the law, and the community's desire to preserve a sense of our history. Jim McCeney said it best when he suggested that the current design is significantly better now than as originally proposed by the developer. The HDC process is the reason it's better.

Jim still felt that the mass of the project was too large for the site and voted against the project as it is currently designed. Most of the speakers at the meeting agreed with Jim.

I also enjoyed the exceptionally well-said comments at the meeting that the "English Village" design of the project was too suburban for Laurel. I'm not sure about that line of reasoning. Laurel doesn't have the urban density of Alexandria or Annapolis. We are a small town with an eclectic mix of architectural styles and neighborhood types. Most of old town Laurel looks least to my admittedly untrained eyes.

I guess at the end of the day, I'm willing to trust the process of the planning commission informing the HDC, who informs the council. Call me Pollyanna, but I believe that everyone wants the best for Laurel. There are no enemies, just well-meaning people with different perspectives.

Mike Collins wants to build a high-quality product that he can sell for a reasonable return. He has a track record of projects for which to be justifiably proud. The HDC wants to encourage historical sensitivity to a previous time and place. The community wants to make sure that the HDC hears and considers their views.

The City Council has a responsibility to improve the tax base and obey the law. They must weigh all of these needs and find a way forward within the specifics of the situation.

I'm not sitting up there anymore. But if I was, I believe that I would vote for the project as currently designed.


Anonymous said...

With all due respect Rick I have to disagree with your conclusions on several respects.

First, the Mass of the Project. HDC guidelines are specific that new projects should reflect the surrounding neighborhood – your own overhead shots show how much more massive this project is (though the front photo short-shrifts, I think the width). For those who weren’t there and wonder why all the fuss about the mass and why those of us who object that this project is out of scale:
• Museum Row exceeds the length of every other structure on Main Street, adjacent to (side and rear) and up to 7™ street This is inconsistent with guideline #10.
• Museum Row exceeds the footprint (building mass on the ground) of every other structure, on Main Street, up to 7th street
• Museum Row is, at a minimum, 3x larger than the adjacent apartment building, and the Old Ladies of Main Street building.

o The adjacent apartment building at 900 Main Street (constructed 1930) measures 53' in length along the Main Street frontage and 30’ in depth, for a footprint of 1600 square feet
o The museum and the old mill houses measure 40* in length on the Main Street frontage.
o St Mildred's measures 100' in length on the Main Street frontage.
o The units to the rear of Museum Row, on Park Hill Road, measure 47' in length, by approx. 42' in depth, for a footprint of 2000 square feet. Even the apartments on the corner of Main and 9th (100 9th street), only have a street frontage of 68'. (and I don't think anyone would argue that these apartments are good for Main Street).

Rick, the HDC meeting was the 5th or 6th I personally have attended. I would point out that had citizens not objected, the Collins project would likely have stayed pretty close to where it started—one big block of 9 townhomes . The “English Village” element is totally out of keeping with any of the prevalent housing styles in Laurel. Most importantly, they bear NO relation to the lovely duplexes that are right up the street (and which are the mass that this project should aim at. The city’s alternate architect, sadly, seemed to demonstrate no knowledge of our guidelines (he had only read them that afternoon!) and clearly, has no understanding or experience in historic districts, whose criteria for mass and scale are very different from other developmental districts.

As I believe Jim McCeney & Jean Wilson noted: we don’t have to “Fix” the proposed project. This project as a whole is too massive and out of touch with the rest of upper Main Street. There are other options.

Karen Lubieniecki

Anonymous said...

I agree with Karen. The "antics" for which someone inquired about were the very lengthy rebuttal by Mr. DiPietro reviewing HDC from its 1970s origination to the present and talking about everything under the sun besides the issue at hand i.e. mass and scale of the project. The "antics" were commissioners refusing to second a motion,then seconding the motion. Passing on the vote; then voting in favor. Council President Mike Leczcz (who would vote on this as a councilman anyway once it went before the council) positioned himself as both judge and jury while patting the back of his fellow "good ole boy" Bobby Jo DiPietro. A fair vote on mass and scale is all that those of us "passionate and reasonable" people who testified wanted. A vote, by the way, that should have been within HDC guidelines. Why have the HDC if commissioners are going to vote on personal preference and not on the written guidelines? As you said, the project would have gone to the council anyway so although the HDC had to make a recommendation only and was not charged with making the final decision, they should have made it according to their own rules. By not following the HDC guidelines they have diminished their influence, in my opinion, on making recommendations on future projects. Hello 7 stories down at the train station. And Karen is right, those of us who opposed this project at least influenced the developer and his appointed architect to consider the impact of the project on the surrounding community and come up with a plan that was better than what they wanted originally. In my passionate and reasonable opinion, they have more work to do.

Dawn Nakroshis said...

I have a great deal of difficulty understanding why the HDC does not have absolute authority over the Museum Row project. They certainly exercised ABSOLUTE authority over the construction of our house, six years ago. Our building permit depended on an approval from the HDC, and construction was halted by the Code Enforcement Department when that approval was rescinded.

No one ever said anything about them making any "recommendations" on whether it would be built.

Anonymous said...

As far as antics, go, having the representatives of the good ol' boys network stand up and call the opponents of this ridiculous projects "elitist" within a few words of describing the cutesy-pie, glued-on, quasi-Victorian detailing of this atrocious wall of garages as being "like an English Village."

I don't know about the speaker in question, but I don't live in an "English Village," or even in a Victorian town—I live in Laurel, which is a collection of quintessential American vernacular architecture with rhythms and forms born out of history. Trying to create a fake cultural influence in the middle of the oldest developed area of our town isn't consistent with anything other than a rich outside developer trying to play the town like a cash machine.

There's really no problem with infill development, and eventually Laurel will come to have a more urban density, but if it's done like these yahoos want to do it, with little enclaves of hack architecture dropped into inappropriate places, the town's going to very swiftly devolve into suburban cheese, with a purely decorative Main Street operating as nothing more than an advertising marquee for realtors.

People are making firms like Duany Plater-Zyberk wealthy trying to build communities that approximate what we already have here, but we're too smart for that, apparently, preferring to cash out and leave, leaving behind DiPietro's fabulous legacy of trashy suburban garage-fronted houses with tacked-on vestigal architectural detailing (see Montgomery Street for some particularly atrocious examples) and fewer reasons for anyone to choose to live in Laurel. That's great planning, there.

I can't help but wonder if anyone in power has ever bothered to read anything at all about decent urban planning (see Kunstler's Home From Nowhere for a particularly fine example), or to even think about what it is that makes this town so admirable. It's not our endless strip malls, and it's not the continuing sell-out of the town's character—it's that we live in a place that was once, at least, possessed of a natural flow and social integration that's endangered by all these isolationist clumps of housing that, by their very design, encourage owners to remain as disconnected from the rest of the town as possible.

Even with the blunt-force mods to the faceless wall of design failures imposed on this design, the Museum Row project will never be more than one more sad example of how we could have done something better, but just didn't care to try.


- Joe Wall

(for more viewpoints on our town, visit my newly-opened web site about Laurel at

Anonymous said...

Rick: Glad you're getting lots of comments, on Museum Row. Ironically, and I suspect unintentionally, in your "recommentary/corrections" --, (which was very gentlemanly) you demonstrated exactly why this project is wrong and too big:

"My picture was liberated from Microsoft's live local bird's eye view for the site. I just could not move far enough west to take in the entire property."

Best, Karen L.

Rick Wilson said...

Karen: It is only a glitch in the live-local software. Nothing more implied. But I'm going to take some better digital pictures today.