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Demolition is best option for properties near new library

February 13, 2013

The line that separates “historic” from “blighted” is often too fine to discern. Historic buildings are only of value if someone with tremendously deep pockets can be found to breathe new life into them, and without such a patron the property will remain an eyesore.

With no white knight on the horizon standing ready to ride in and restore three decaying buildings on Baltimore Street adjoining the new library property, the city and county are faced with two unpleasant choices: Get rid of them and lose a slice of historic architecture, or let them stand and degrade what will be one of the bright spots in the downtown.

The focal point of the block is the former Massey auto body shop, now owned by Washington County. Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts correctly says “there’s no reason why it should stay up.”

But there is a reason, and that would be that the Maryland Historical Trust has designated it as historic. That doesn’t mean it can’t be demolished, but it does limit the funding sources that can be used to tear it down.

We have no illusions of changing the policy of the Maryland Historical Trust, but we agree with city officials who want to see the lot cleared.

The impressive new Washington County Free Library will open its doors this year, and city council member Kristin Aleshire correctly notes the difference between a good project and a great project will depend on the character of the entire block.

As long as the blighted Massey building stands, the library will be like a tuxedo with a large gravy stain on the shirt. Worse, since the library is open in the evenings, the Massey property will be seen as a crime and public safety risk. Even if there are no criminals around, people see a boarded-up building and naturally assume that undesirables will be skulking in the shadows.

Washington County, which acquired the property as part of the larger library project, seems to understand that something needs to be done with the building, although the details have yet to be ironed out.

We agree with Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham, who says the only aspect of the Massey building that is historic is the Baltimore facade, which can be properly documented for posterity and then demolished.

And that’s what needs to happen for the new library — which will soon be the crown jewel of downtown, and on which a tidy sum has already been spent — to achieve its full potential. It would be foolish, for want of a few more dollars, to allow a slum to spoil the view.

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