Plan to tear down Ellicott City buildings has some concerned about preserving history

Local preservation leaders are grappling with Howard County’s $50 million plan to demolish up to 19 buildings in historic Ellicott City, which some worry would do little to mitigate flooding and could jeopardize the status of the town’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Preservation Maryland, a statewide preservation advocacy group, issued a statement questioning and condemning the proposal after Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein announced plans Thursday to demolish buildings, build water retention facilities and expand waterways beneath the street in the historic mill town during the next five years. County officials said the measures would help lessen the impacts of future floods and improve public safety in the town.

Ellicott City’s Main Street has flooded twice since 2016, destroying businesses and residences and killing several people. Kittleman and Weinstein said the plan was aimed at increasing the safety of residents, business owners and visitors.

“The county had to make some very difficult decisions, but I also think that there was no way that we could continue to put up with the kind of flooding that we were having, especially after having four lives lost,” said Debbie Slack Katz, vice president of the Ellicott City Partnership board of directors and chair of the partnership’s flood work group. She will sit on an advisory group for historic preservation as the plan is implemented.

In a statement, Preservation Maryland said the group supports efforts to save lives in Ellicott City, but suggested alternative strategies to tearing down buildings. Under the plan, 5 percent of the historic district — 10 buildings at the base of Main Street, seven residences and two other structures — would be demolished.

“Proven stormwater management tools and scientifically driven hydrologic retention efforts should be employed to reverse the damaging manmade impacts now causing these events,” Preservation Maryland said in a statement. “Demolition of historic buildings, is not, however, a proven strategy nor has it been adequately studied in Ellicott City to understand its hydrological impact.”

The group wanted to learn more about the county’s decision making process, and worried that removing buildings could create new flood patterns that would put other sites, like the B&O Ellicott City Station Museum, a National Historic Landmark, at risk.

It’s not the first time Ellicott City has stared down a sweeping evolution. Floods, fires and a train derailment have prompted changes before.

“Ellicott City doesn’t look anything like it did 100 years ago, 50 years ago. I mean, the town has adapted so much and a lot of times it’s adapted as a result of these natural disasters,” said Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society and another member of the historic preservation advisory group for Ellicott City. “These disasters seem to always force some kind of change.”

But Preservation Maryland is concerned demolishing buildings in Ellicott City could lead to the town’s removal from the National Register of Historic Places, thereby limiting tax credits and other incentives available for the community.

Jim Gabbert, a historian at the National Register of Historic Places who reviews sites in Maryland, said the National Register can remove a place if the historic character that made it eligible for the list is compromised. But the National Register does not take places off the list unless someone requests them to be removed.

The National Register of Historic Places lists both individual buildings and entire districts. The Ellicott City Historic District, as well as individual sites in the town, are part of the the register.

“In the case of a district, if the extent of the loss is such that it no longer reflects why it was listed then it can be removed from the National Register,” Gabbert said.

Gabbert said without knowing the history of each of the 19 buildings slated for removal in Ellicott City, it’s hard to say whether their demolition would constitute an argument for removing the district from the register.

“It could be 19 particularly significant resources,” he said. “While everything within the district boundaries are listed in the National Register as part of the district, there are those that have more historic value than others.”

Sites listed on the National Register are not inherently protected from construction or modification. But if property owners are using federal funds to change a site on the register — as Howard County hopes to do — they must consult with the state preservation office (in Ellicott City’s case, the Maryland Historical Trust) on whether the project will adversely affect the site’s historic nature, Gabbert said.

Howard County officials said they expect to use a combination of local, state and federal funds for their five-year project to stave off short-term flooding in the historic mill town.

Peter Kurtze, National Register coordinator for the Maryland Historical Trust, could not be reached for comment Friday.

A four-person advisory group will work to identify historical features that can be preserved as buildings are torn down in Ellicott City. Members include Slack Katz, Gladden, historian and researcher Ed Lilley and Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County.

Preservationists have not played a prominent role in planning for Ellicott City’s future until now, Dorsey said. He wanted to see more options presented for flood mitigation — particularly on the north end of Main Street.

Before the May 27 flood, talk of demolishing historic structures in Ellicott City was “big-time frowned upon by us in the preservation community,” Gladden said. But he hasn’t seen a better alternative.

“I haven’t seen another plan that achieves the hydrology goals that I think the county is trying to achieve,” Gladden said. “Begrudgingly, at this point this looks like this is our option.”

The buildings set to be removed at the bottom of Main Street housed beloved businesses such as Great Panes Glass Studio, Bean Hollow, Phoenix Emporium, Portalli’s, Discoveries, Tea on the Tiber, Shoemaker Country and Miss Fit. Two of the buildings have been vacant since 2016.

While some business owners in Ellicott City were saddened to hear their buildings were being eyed for demolition, others, like Great Panes co-owner Sherry Fackler-Berkowtiz, praised the proposal. She said her building has been renovated a number of times, and much of its historic character was lost after the 2016 flood, when she gutted the building.

Gladden agreed many structures along Main Street had been modified over time, and said their facades provide the most direct connection to the buildings’ origins.

“The most historically intact building is probably the Tea on the Tiber,” he said. “Other than that many of those buildings have changed numerous times.”

The advisory group will work to document the buildings’ history and removal and save what they can — pieces of facades, significant architectural features, signs, granite steps and any artifacts unearthed as the buildings come down.

Still, he said, it will be shocking if the buildings disappear.

“You try and look at the positives when something like this happens, but it’s very difficult,” Gladden said. “All of us have devoted our lives to historic preservation and to be presented something that basically is the antithesis of what you stand for is hard. But once again, I have yet to see a plan that achieves what he county is trying to achieve.”

“Ellicott City is one of the state of Maryland’s crown jewels. What is done here will resonate for generations to come – and could, if done correctly, set a standard to which the rest of the nation strives to meet,” Preservation Maryland said in a statement. “Preservation Maryland firmly believes we must rise to meet this challenge. The future of Ellicott City depends on it.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this story.

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