The Annapolis Maryland waterfront • © 2013 G J Gibson Photography

Colonial & Maritime Charm Or Faux Historical 40' Buildings?

A Historic American City Anguishes Over a Developed Vision for its Future

There are many among us who knowingly accept that change is inevitable and to contest its arrival can seem like nothing more than tilting at the proverbial windmill much as Miguel de Cervantes alluded to in his early 17th century novel. To put it in terms that a seafaring Annapolitan might more easily understand contesting the future development plans for the Annapolis City Dock currently being proffered by a select group of city politicians is like trying to stop the high tide from coming in from the Chesapeake Bay.

Annapolis Maryland has deep historical roots originating with the arrival of a group of independent minded Puritans who first settled along the shores on the northeast side of today’s Severn River in late 1649. By 1651, with the need for additional land, the area across the river on its southeast shore became the location for further expansion of the original settlement in an area that would become the present day City of Annapolis. In 1694 the capital of the royal colony of Maryland was moved from St. Mary’s City, located at the southern end of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, to Annapolis for what in hindsight appears to be religious reasons. During the early part of the 18th century Annapolis served as one of the designated colonial port cities where tobacco and food crops were shipped to England and goods would later return on those same ships. This circle of commerce contributed to the overall growth of the city and also to the establishment of a prosperous merchant class who set up shops along the waterfront and acquired property - early developers of the day so to speak. While its importance as a shipment point declined rapidly in the 1700's, as Baltimore assumed that economic role in the colony, Annapolis survived the transition mostly due to it being the capital of Maryland and home to a number of government functionaries and early lobbyists who traveled to the city.

In 1696 the third oldest college in the United States was founded at St. John’s College, then named King William’s School, and in the mid 19th century the United States Naval Academy was established on the grounds adjacent to the old Fort Severn at the point where the present day harbor meets the Severn River.

Over the years the rich aquatic bounty from the Chesapeake Bay facilitated the growth of fisheries,canneries and boatyards that lasted well into the 20th century. The personal sailing and boating industries became more prominent in the late 1800's as the level of aquatic harvesting related businesses began a steady gradual decline. Today it is these personal recreational maritime vessels that visitors see as they stand along the waterfront looking out on the hundreds of sailboats and power boats docked or moored along the harbor.

As far as the significance of Annapolis historic architecture it has been noted that in the 1920's John D. Rockefeller had first chosen Annapolis as the site for a restoration project of his but due to local business opposition at the time he instead moved on to Williamsburg Virginia which of course today is mostly a faux colonial era Disneyland like setting minus the rides unless you consider nearby Busch Gardens. Rumors and speculation had it that Henry Ford contemplated relocating many significant historical buildings in the city northward for use in his own private park. During the Second World War the Department of the Navy proposed expanding southward by taking over the campus of St. John’s College and incorporating it into the Naval Academy which was prevented only by some very astute lobbying by individuals in Annapolis. You see as residents in the Maritime Republic here in Annapolis are known to say “we like it this way.” In others words just leave things as they are please.

While this topical and brief history of Annapolis might beg the question from readers as to how does this relate to the title of this article? Well my response is that it serves as what I would consider to be the necessary background, a framework if you would, in which to put both this and future articles into a proper context.

You see throughout all of these mileposts along the road of Annapolis history individuals, possessing various reasons, have mostly chosen to leave the architectural character and ambiance of what was built before them just as it was, even from back hundreds of years ago. Actually the two main local adversaries to the efforts of preserving the historic character and buildings in the city were government property acquisitions and fire.

Annapolis, much like Washington DC, is a city where government buildings of federal, state and county ownership occupy a significant portion of the land within the city limits. Exempt from property taxes, yet a user of local resources, they continue to expand even in the present day devouring more buildings and land within the downtown area yet accountable to no one much less history itself. Numerous buildings have fallen prey to government development over the years as their presence is replaced with faux historical looking brick office complexes and parking garages.

As to the title of this article today the Annapolis waterfront area is under siege by both developers and their Hessian like surrogates pitting residents who favor a continuing historic colonial character and 19th century maritime ambiance along the City Dock area versus those who see profit opportunities in this jewel on the Severn River regardless of the erosion to the long preserved scenic views.

In 2013 guidelines and drawings submitted by and under the auspices of an appointed planning commission replete with apparent preset agendas, strictly managed public workshops and zoning committee meetings, reminiscent of civil toned show trials, have been used as a stalking horse by certain elected officials in order to advance their own interpretation of what the future of the City Dock should be. More green spaces and less cars will conversely lead to larger influxes of visitors thereby shoring up the city’s economic base as well as its future while providing for a better way of life is the mantra emanating from the pro development camp.

Yes the mothers and fathers of families with young children who live adjacent to the City Dock seem at times mesmerized by the promise of more play areas for their children and the removal of more than a third of the parking spaces that currently exist along the waterfront. Who would not want a drink of this Kool-aid in the name of being more green with additional pocket parks? Did I already use the word stalking horse?

The apparent agenda of certain elected city officials came more into focus within the last month or so soon after the macro level recommendations from the City Dock Planning Commission, having been established almost two years ago, had been presented to the City Council during a public meeting. Questions were immediately asked by both citizens and curious elected representatives alike as to the size, depth and locations of the massive buildings that could be seen in the colorful futuristic renderings provided by the city’s project consultant. It was in those renderings that the streets along the City Dock area were now on display depicting modern and glass filled four story buildings that would take the place of the one or two story structures currently on those same parcels of land. There was talk of yet another multi story hotel in the first public city council meeting that would surely impact the viewscape to the water much as the Hilton, now the Marriott Hotel, did when it was built in the 1960's. An 11th hour surprise for Annapolitans by our elected officials in order to minimize the opposition from the citizenry by holding back the details until the last possible moment? Perhaps? However as we say when gathered at the end of Ego Alley looking out on the unobstructed views of the water if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck than it most certainly is a duck.

So what does the future of the Annapolis waterfront hold for both its citizens and visitors alike? An upscale waterfront promenade with offices, condos and shops? Will the colonial and maritime charm be replaced with Starbucks, perhaps an Apple Store or quaint boutiques with faux historical facades? At this point, in what some refer to as the process, one could be of the opinion that the future does not look good for those of the preservation persuasion but for the developers it seems pretty bright, more the pity.

Then there are people such as myself who believe that yes change is inevitable however we as engaged citizens are obligated to be involved in determining just what kind and how much change will actually take place.We owe it to both those who came before us as well as to those who will come after us to voice our opinions while challenging the hidden political agendas contrary to the well being, character and history of Maryland’s Capital City on the Chesapeake Bay.

My vision has been to create a plan of action to free Annapolis from the lethargy and ignorance that has long prevented its full emergence as a truly complete environment for fruitful living, historic enlightenment and economic stability“ from a presentation titled A PRESENT AND FUTURE LEGACY FOR ANNAPOLIS a quote by the noted historic preservationist Anne St. Claire Wright.