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Glass more than half full

January 11, 2009

In 1995, Hagerstown City Hall rejected a plan by developer Don Bowman to renovate the old Baldwin House into office and retail space, choosing instead a plan submitted by a Baltimore developer who proposed fashioning the old hotel into upscale apartments - a proposal that fell through, just about as soon as it was approved.

In 2002, the Washington County Commissioners hastily changed the definition of the term "truck stop" in an effort to block a travel plaza Bowman had proposed near Williamsport.

Now it's windows. You can understand Bowman's irritation.

The Hagerstown Historic District Commission says it wasn't engaging in an overly rigid, sash-and-burn policy of obstruction, but merely trying to enforce existing guidelines by insisting that newly installed aluminum-framed windows in the historic Walker house be replaced by glass with wooden frames. It maintains there is no intent to throw a monkey wrench into Bowman's project.

I suspect that's true enough. After all, the commission has only kind words for Bowman's overall effort to remake a barren and blighted section of South Potomac Street into an upscale center of trade. And to the City of Hagerstown's credit, it now says it will not hold up the project based on Windowgate.

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But the commission says if it were to make an exception for Bowman, it would give other developers cause to do as they please without regard to historic guidelines - and then point to Bowman's project demanding similar, lenient treatment.

That's a fair point too. To be enforceable, guidelines generally need to apply to all parties equally. And what of other developers who have already gone to the extra expense of wood, only to see that someone else might not be held to the same standard?

Of course there's a spirited back-and-forth over who was promised/not promised exemption/nonexemption in said wood/aluminum debate. Good luck figuring that out. And while it may matter to the courts, it shouldn't matter to the rest of us.

What matters is how to keep everyone focused on the same goal, which is an active and interesting downtown.

In this sense, historic commissions and developers generally want the same thing, although they may differ on the approach. An attractive, viable city is in everyone's best interest. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and history is a matter of degrees.

While I admire the HDC's mission and its willingness to stick to its guns, an obvious question presents itself: Which is worse - a well-preserved historic building with aluminum windows, or an empty historic building with wooden windows that falls into such disrepair it must be bulldozed?

Remember, it wasn't so very long ago that no one was putting new windows of any kind into our downtown buildings. At that time, empty buildings ruled the landscape and proper glass encasements were the least of our worries.

The danger here is that, especially with the recent economic situation, a downtown resurgence is still enormously tenuous. The city is improving in fits and starts, but it is still nowhere near the point where we can afford to be overly picky.

Inevitably, the debate over windows will become more important than the windows themselves if developers get the impression that they will be dogged at every turn. That may not be the reality, but it is far too easy for it to become the perception, which in investment circles is as good as reality.

Obviously, we don't want the old facade of the old Barracuda fish bar in the middle of historic downtown Hagerstown, but there are some areas where compromise is necessary in light of the greater good.

Don Bowman is putting a lot on the line by investing heavily in the city, and it does us no good to raise a fuss with him just because aluminum wasn't yet milled in 1862. There weren't any traffic lights in 1862 either, but - well, never mind.

The important thing is to look at the overall work, which has been splendid and should become a downtown cornerstone for decades to come. It is a gift and, however well-intentioned, it is never smart policy to criticize the giver. You can't tell me there isn't some way to creatively bend the rules in order to repay a huge favor.

If that still sticks in the craw, consider that time is always moving on. In another hundred years, aluminum windows will themselves be considered historic - and there will probably be a commission somewhere telling a developer they cannot be replaced with wood.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. You can e-mail him at timr@herald-mail.com.

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