Downtown Annapolis is our town’s crown jewel.
Its history, maritime charm, beautiful streets, unique shops and pedestrian scale all contribute to its enduring appeal. I view all of us as temporary stewards of this treasure 300 years in the making. It is our responsibility to preserve it, nurture it and pass it along in better shape than we found it.
Even though the positive qualities of City Dock are plainly evident, it is just as clear to me that its role as a community gathering place for locals has waned over the years.
City Dock should be more than a world-class tourist attraction; we need to once again reclaim it as central to our community life. Acres of prime waterfront real estate paved for parking, a Market House that saves the best views of the harbor for the mops and brooms, the widely held perception of a parking problem — all of these symptoms pose a fundamental challenge: how do we breathe new life back into downtown as the heart of our community?
Since becoming mayor I have made City Dock the priority of our planning efforts. The city’s continuing efforts to revive the Market House are well known, and as of this writing are still a work in progress.
But our focus on City Dock is broader than just the Market House. From examining bicycle and pedestrian safety and traffic flow to enhancing Hopkins Plaza and Market Space to creating a Circulator Trolley to improve mobility to forming a citizen-led City Dock Advisory Committee, City Hall has been fully engaged in re-envisioning our town’s crown jewel.
A renewed focus on Compromise Street
One area the city is examining is the Compromise Street corridor. While this corridor features key community assets such as the Newman Street Playground, the former city recreation building and the Annapolis Yacht Club, it also lacks a coherent vision or plan.
Much of the water view is blocked by buildings, most of the water access is closed to the public, and surface parking is prevalent on both sides of the street. The City Dock Advisory Committee (CDAC) identified this corridor as “an important, if somewhat underrated, gateway” needing “mixed use and flexible uses that enhance downtown and the public enjoyment of City Dock” (CDAC Phase One Report, Page 16).
Two time-sensitive factors are focusing the city’s attention on this corridor. First, the owners of the former Fawcett Boat Supplies building at 110 Compromise St. are requesting a rezoning.
Second, the Board of Education is about to begin a two-year revitalization project of Annapolis Elementary School. The school project in particular offers a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity to move downtown’s revitalization forward.
Redevelopment of Annapolis Elementary School
The reason the school project is so exciting for downtown’s revitalization is because of the land behind it. Immediately behind the school is a large Board of Education-owned surface parking lot with frontage along Compromise Street.
Adjacent to the parking lot is a large city-owned parcel that includes the Newman Street Playground, a basketball court, and a small urban pocket park. Taken together, these two parcels comprise one of the few large plots of land left downtown.
For years, Annapolitans have discussed redeveloping these two parcels. The general concept includes new street-level retail along Compromise Street, mixed-use residential units or office above it, and structured parking in the rear. This would accomplish two objectives.
First, it would take advantage of the million-dollar view by replacing an acre of uninspired surface parking with pedestrian-oriented commercial activity. Second, by housing a large number of new parking spaces within a parking garage, it would finally allow for a serious discussion about removing some of the surface parking on the other side of Ego Alley.
Recent events and personal involvement
In 2008, when I was serving on the County Council, the Board of Education requested funding for the revitalization of Annapolis Elementary. Although this historic school was one of the last remaining true neighborhood institutions downtown, the high construction cost-per-pupil prompted many on the County Council to pursue closing the school instead.
A budget battle ensued but thanks in large part to the support of House Speaker Mike Busch, Annapolis Elementary survived.
The following year I invited the city’s Planning Director Jon Arason to brief Superintendent of Schools Kevin Maxwell about some of the concepts for revitalizing City Dock and the property behind Annapolis Elementary. These informal discussions continued after I became mayor, and this past November I wrote to Board President Patricia Nalley to invite Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) to formally develop the parameters for a partnership agreement.
On Jan. 5, the City Dock Advisory Committee approved a report of its garage subcommittee in support of the city moving forward with the process. The report (which is well worth reading and provides helpful context and history) lists a number of principles to be followed including height, size, historic compatibility, and more.
On Jan. 9 the City Council followed suit, unanimously adopting Resolution 64-11 to express its endorsement of the concept and support for continued discussions as well. I expect that these ongoing discussions will result soon in a proposed memorandum or agreement that will outline a number of stipulations for the property’s redevelopment.
Last year, independent of the city, a group of local business leaders created Compromise LLC, a private partnership to redevelop the two parcels. Led by the Jerome J. Parks Companies, which developed Park Place, this group has met informally with city and Board of Education officials and presented their concept plans to the City Dock Advisory Committee, the Annapolis Economic Development Corp., and other local civic groups.
Compromise LLC is providing welcome expertise and legwork. The engineering, feasibility studies and other due diligence they are doing is instructive and is something that the city’s bare-bones staff lacks the capacity to do in-house. The Capital’s recent editorial recognizes the merits of Compromise LLC’s proposal, as well as the broader redevelopment concept overall.
The Compromise LLC proposal represents one option for achieving the vision. However, it is not the only option and many issues remain undecided. Before we can properly evaluate their proposal, the city must first achieve a broad-based consensus for redevelopment of the property.
We will only get there with buy-in from the Board of Education, school parents, neighbors and other stakeholders.
My November 2011 letter to Ms. Nalley stated clearly that any redevelopment of these parcels would include a rebuilt playground. I can state unequivocally that there is no way this project will happen without relocating or rebuilding the playground, possibly even closer to the school itself.
Unaware of the letter, a group of parents recently started an online petition to save the Newman Street Playground. Led by Annapolis Elementary PTA president Chris Stelzig, the petition signers are asking for assurances that a new, similar playground be built if the existing one needs to be removed.
Much of the concern behind the petition appears to stem from the fact that the City Council resolution makes no mention of the playground. Although the resolution’s intent was not to get into that level of detail, it is understandable how the lack of a clear statement could invite these concerns.
I share the organizers’ passion for the playground. It is a fantastic community gathering place and a welcome oasis for parents with young children who need to burn some energy.
(My family often ends up there when we go downtown.) The playground is essential for the Board of Education, as well. School officials have clearly stated the need to retain a safe, robust playground for students at the school.
If, as I hope, this project continues to move forward, the Annapolis Elementary PTA as well as many other stakeholders will have ample opportunity for involvement and input.
The upcoming redevelopment of Annapolis Elementary School is spurring a renewed focus on downtown revitalization and a real sense of urgency to act. If we fail to seize the moment, we will lose this once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalize one of downtown’s key arteries, a project that may also serve as a catalyst for a broader rebirth of downtown.
This is our moment to do it right. I am confident that despite the many unresolved questions, time constraints and sheer complexity of the project, we will make this project one that our whole community will be proud of.
For more from Mayor Josh Cohen visit www.mayorcohen.com.