Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Friday, March 20, 2009

This really CHAPs my hide!

This latest development in the Senator saga really CHAPs my hide.

What’s up with the CHAP notices that have recently been posted on the front of The Senator Theatre?

For those who don’t speak acronym, CHAP is Baltimore City’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation. In 2007, they added The Senator to their “Special List,” which was created just for the theatre, and now they’re attempting to slap restrictive controls on any interior modification to this privately-owned property. It seems that this alarming attempt to seize municipal control over The Senator’s interior spaces is unprecedented. Libertarians, are you reading this?

That’s right. With this proposed legislation, Baltimore City is saying that whoever owns The Senator Theatre will have to make specific permit applications to CHAP for ANY modification of the interior of the theatre, and at the commission’s discretion, it can hold up a permit for up for six months while CHAP takes public input on proposed modifications to private property. Whoa. Are there any constitutional lawyers in the house?

And get this: The Senator is the only building in Baltimore on the “Special List.” Just The Senator. Now isn’t THAT special?

From a preservation standpoint, The Senator Theatre building is already protected. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989, and it was placed there after owner Tom Kiefaber successfully campaigned to get it listed.

As Lewis Carroll would say, the city’s actions regarding The Senator Theatre are getting “curiouser and curiouser.”

An inside source in city government tells me there are staff members in the planning department who are quite upset over the heavy-handed machinations of a particular powerful CHAP commissioner that the source would not name.

Seems like this reportedly scary honcho has everybody afraid to blow the whistle on what looks like a blatant attempt to fix the auction of The Senator.

I’m told that this mysterious CHAP commissioner is the sole prime mover driving this highly questionable effort forward, which will seriously undermine the bottom line value of The Senator, intentionally or not. Let’s face it: would you bid on a building if you knew you potentially faced six months of red tape for any modifications of its interior beyond routine maintenance?

A quick investigation of the CHAP website turned up an interesting fact: Mr. James “Buzz” Cusack sits on the commission. Excuse me if this seems like the kind of thing that gets taken off of government web sites after bloggers notice them. I took a screen shot.

The Baltimore Sun has reported that Mr. Cusack, who runs the Charles Theater, a rival to Tom Kiefaber over the years, has announced his intention to be one of the bidders on The Senator if it goes to auction. So, is Buzz Cusack the mysterious commissioner who is conducting this railroad train? If not, then who is? Anyone out there know who sponsored this action by CHAP? Pray tell.

Another article in the Baltimore Sun reveals that Kiefaber is not happy about CHAP’s attempt to place restrictive controls over the renowned theatre that he and his family have lovingly preserved since 1939.

Kiefaber said a plan to preserve the building's interior, however well-intentioned, contributed to his decision to stop showing first-run films. The proposal, by the city's Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation, would severely restrict any structural changes that could be made to the Senator's interior. In the long term, Kiefaber said today, that would affect the building's value by limiting a prospective buyer's options. In the short term, he said, the move scared off an investor whose capital could have helped Kiefaber meet payroll for his 23-person staff.

So just the specter of this controversial CHAP action scared off an investor? Well surprise, surprise. So that’s why The Senator closed down so suddenly for the first time in seven decades with no warning.

And why does the City now seem to be backing off their well-publicized “offer” to Kiefaber that would have him sign over The Senator to a non-profit and allow him to keep his home?

Is it just a coincidence that Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank’s prediction in the Sun of when the mid-April auction will take place also coincides with the date set for the upcoming CHAP hearing? Maybe it’s just my paranoia about the way our fair city operates behind the scenes, but this whole affair is starting to reek of something foul.

When I asked Kiefaber about all this, he (uncharacteristically) said very little and looked a bit rattled by the inquiry. Is it just me or do Tom’s public statements lately about these matters seem like a captive’s communications from a kidnapper’s lair?

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Blogger Laura Serena said...

I just want to give a tip of the hat to Tom Harris for finding Buzz Cusack's name on the CHAP web site.

March 20, 2009

Blogger swobobafett said...

Interesting reporting there. I thought it would be a good thing to protect the interior so it could remain fairly intact. I didn't realize that the provision was so strict it could limit how you can paint it, change it, etc.

And to think Baltimore City was ethical? ;-)

March 20, 2009


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