The engineer hired by the nonprofit lined up to buy the Hendler Creamery building – and hoping for permission to raze it – called the historic structure unsalvageable.
A neighbor who, recalling the current owner’s glittery promises to turn the building into a luxury development to lift up this East Baltimore community, said it now looks like “Fort Apache, The Bronx.”
But the lawyer representing those who want to save the structure yesterday turned the blame for the building’s deplorable condition back on the preservation panel he was addressing.
“Isn’t this a classic case of demolition by neglect?” attorney John C. Murphy demanded of Eric Holcomb, executive director of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).
Murphy went on summarize the 133-year-old building’s recent unfortunate history.
In 2015, CHAP gave permission to the property’s current owner, Commercial Development, for substantial demolition, pitched as the best way to attract investment money.
The roof and two walls of the building were razed, and interior portions were gutted. And then the property stayed that way for years, open to the elements.
“You were at CHAP” in 2015, Murphy demanded of Holcomb, who acknowledged he was.
“CHAP authorized the demolition of this building,” the lawyer exclaimed. “CHAP created this ruin, did they not?”
A Courtroom Battle
Holcomb, the target of Murphy’s fiery cross-examination, has led the charge to bypass CHAP’s normal two-meeting deliberative process, presenting the staff’s recommendation finding that the structure’s deterioration is so great that it has “lost its historic significance.”
Normally a CHAP hearing is tightly controlled by Chairman Harry Spikes, with Holcomb at his side.
But yesterday’s meeting blew up into a tense courtroom battle.
Murphy objected repeatedly (“Move to strike!” “Hearsay!” “This is just not fair!”), while a representative of the City Law Department provided Holcomb with whispered counsel on how to respond.
At issue was whether or not to reject the staff’s recommendation and stave off demolition.
The motion to reject the staff’s recommendation was approved 6-5 ,with Chair Nichole Battle breaking the tie. (Battle stood in for Spikes, who was absent)
Voting “yes” were Garrett Power, Peter Morrill, Ann Powell, Sara Langmeade, Kuo Pao Lian and Battle.
Voting “no” were Gary Rodwell, Katherine Good, Jill Dennis, John Bullock and Tamara Woods.
Next the commissioners had to decide whether to immediately hold a Demolition II hearing, during which economic and structural issues are considered, or hold off until next month’s meeting.
Commissioner Power argued it would be best to delay until June “in light of the irregularities and complications and confusion” around the Hendler matter.
Fellow commissioners agreed, with all but Rodwell and 9th District Councilman Bullock voting “yes.”
“Irregularities and Complications”
Those irregularities and complications were apparent at the outset of CHAP’s pre-meeting briefing session when the public is asked to leave the room.
A closed session was held to discuss the issues stemming from the March 14 meeting when a nearly hour-long segment of the meeting video went silent and blank during discussion of the Hendler situation.
The missing footage and the irregular way the vote to demolish the Hendler was taken prompted preservation advocates Donna Beth Joy Shapiro and Fred Shoken to ask for the matter to be re-considered and hire Murphy.
The couple believe that the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, should be saved, and that they were not given enough time to hire an engineer to make the case that adaptive re-use is possible.
“Please, I need time to get an engineer – I implore you,” Murphy said, blasting Holcomb for not informing his clients that Hendler’s demolition would go before CHAP until just days before the meeting.
The engineer for the contract buyer, Helping Up Mission, again presented the results of a visual and drone survey of the site.
“About 10% to 15% of the brick is salvageable,” said structural engineer William Rockey, vice president of Century Engineering. “Then the structure will be 85% to 90% new, and at that point is it really historic?”
“There is no safe way to preserve the crumbling facades. No solution,” added Helping Up CEO Daniel Stoltzfus.
What’s the Rush?
Unlike the March meeting, when Shapiro was the lone speaker to question demolition of the Hendler, this time the opponents included a high-profile preservation professional.
“You do not have enough information to make an informed judgement,” said Bill Pencek, former president of Baltimore Heritage and an official with the Maryland Historical Trust.
“If you accept the demolition-by-neglect that has occurred there without knowing more, you set a terrible precedent and contribute to the demise of the integrity of the Jonestown [Historic] District, and Baltimore,” he continued.
The opinion by Helping Up’s engineer, “is just that, an opinion,” Pencek added.
The fact that Helping Up had said at the March meeting that demolition would not likely begin for 18 months “belies the notion that the building is deteriorated beyond repair.”
“What’s the rush? Slow it down,” he advised. “There are likely a range of options.”
“There is serious question as to whether you are a panel about historic preservation or historic demolition” – Dolph Druckman.
Where Pencek was measured, the final witness, Dolph Druckman, was blistering.
“You have a big job here today, commissioners, because it is the credibility of CHAP which is at stake,” the city resident said.
“There is just too much in this instance and many others that have come before you, where there is serious question as to whether you are a panel about historic preservation or historic demolition.”
“You don’t have the record. You don’t have contrary opinions,” he said in closing. “This is about your entire process and credibility.”