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

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fair Share Challenge: What Taxes Do For Me

This post is in response to a blogger challenge from my friend Isy. She was fed up with millionaires who don't want to pay their fair share of taxes, as well as tea baggers who say silly things like "Get your filthy government hands off my Medicare!" She decided to write a post about her life, putting in boldfaced type anything that is funded or subsidized by taxes (federal, state, or local). I hope lots of bloggers take up the challenge and it makes its way all over the internet.

Now, some of you may know I have been critical of local government corruption in Baltimore, particularly when it comes to the degradation of The Senator Theatre, which got very limited funding when Tom Kiefaber was running it, but just got a lot more funding now that Baltimore City has taken it over and chosen some politically connected cronies to run it. It's important to be aware of it and speak out when tax dollars are being misused and public officials are acting inappropriately, but we all also have a lot of things to be thankful for that are funded by taxes -- things we almost couldn't live without.

Yesterday, I drove by city streets to Whole Foods, where I bought yummy stuff to eat. Many of the farmers who grew it probably received subsidies. Perhaps Whole Foods received subsidies as well, to build their store there. I know they have received such government help in other communities. Everything that was for sale at the store had conveniently arrived there on trucks that traveled over highways and city streets. Thank heavens for that, because I wouldn't want to shop at a store with empty shelves!

After I went to Whole Foods, I drove over more city streets to get to the farmer's market. Lots of delicious stuff there for sure! It was a lot of driving that day, but luckily, my car doesn't use much gasoline.

Tonight, my friend is coming to visit me, and she's arriving at Penn Station by Amtrak. Maybe while she's here, we'll visit the art museum, which we enjoyed last time she was here. Or maybe we'll go to the Inner Harbor and see the aquarium or the U.S.S. Constellation.

Later this year, I'm going to Massachusetts. I'll be using the interstate highway system to get there. It would be a pretty circuitous and maybe impossible route if it weren't for all those bridges built in the 1930s by the WPA. All of that infrastructure is getting quite old now, yet we all still rely on it every day. I often see Department of Transportation workers out on the highways and bridges fixing them. The resulting traffic jams are a bit of a pain, but it would be even worse if they never got repaired! Getting the funding to repair our nation's infrastructure is a continual political challenge, largely because of arguments in Congress like the one last week, where some people thought it was more important to subsidize Bill Gates and Dick Cheney and other wealthy people than to fund basic programs that benefit us all.

My sister just got a job working for the school system. Her kids are being educated in the same school system. Her husband works at a non-profit. My other sister works for a public university. Her ex-husband works at a library. My parents used to work at a different public university, but now they're retired. They're getting social security and Medicare. I hope those things are still available when I'm their age.

I've started selling things online, which I love so far. It means I can work from home, but sometimes I have to go to the post office to put things in the mail. I used to work for various corporations, but then I got injured. I'm glad I was able to get state disability and worker's comp, but it's a good thing I didn't have to rely on them entirely, and had savings, because they wouldn't have been enough. I'm thankful too that there's still some government regulation of the banking industry or my savings and my retirement fund would probably be long gone.

It's a struggle to start a new career, and I'm no longer receiving any disability, but fortunately, I haven't had to go on food stamps or anything like that. It's nice to know they'd be there if I needed them. I wonder if I would qualify for any government grants for small business, but I haven't looked into it.

I don't know what the corporations I used to work for would have done without public schools and public universities. Even with those systems providing them with skilled and trained workers, they were still having a hard time finding enough people with the right skills.

I have cousins who are in various branches of the military. I hope those who are still serving stay safe.

I've had a couple of friends who had to go to hospitals recently. I'm glad they got good care.

I also want to note my gratitude for electricity. Without it, I'd be writing this with a pen by candlelight, and you'd have trouble reading it.

UPDATE: The Fair Share Challenge now has its own blog!

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Tom Kiefaber's letter to CHAP

Former Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber copied me and also several others, including reporters for the local media, on this letter to Baltimore City's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) before their meeting today. I have asked for and received permission to distribute it.

Dear Ms. Kotarba and Mr. Leon: Please pass on my protest over the manner in which today's CHAP hearing is being conducted to the commissioners. I will also attempt to forward this communication to them individually as well. To proceed on this matter today under these circumstances is improper, as I elaborate below.

Sincerely, Tom Kiefaber

August 9, 2011

Dear Chairperson and CHAP members:

I am writing in my capacity as the former owner of Baltimore's once-beloved and currently degraded Senator Theatre and as an award-winning professional in the field of historic theatre operation and preservation.

It has become apparent through manipulation of the courts by way of a "Peace Order" that Ms. Kathleen Cusack, a key representative of the tenants seeking CHAP concept approval of a fourth new iteration to significantly alter The Senator Theatre, has tactically barred my in-person participation and testimony in today's CHAP commission hearing. My lawyer has advised me not to attend or risk arrest.

Today's CHAP hearing represents the forth major change in the "competitive" RFP plan awarded by the City of Baltimore, and it has become a fundamentally different project from what was approved by the BDC on behalf of the citizen owners of the renowned National Historic Landmark facility. Today's CHAP commission hearing is auspicious in that it represents a significant departure from prior CHAP approvals of three earlier concept plans for significant modification of The Senator Theatre.

From the incomplete set of drawings I was provided by CHAP staff upon request, it appears that the applicants have chosen to take the oft-delayed project in a disappointing direction by converting the remarkably intact historic structure to create a cramped and substandard four-screen film multiplex. This current direction of the controversial project is alarming, considering the ongoing seismic changes in the motion picture exhibition industry that have rendered such modified re-configurations of National Historic Landmark theatres as outmoded, costly folly. The truncated and incomplete schematics I was provided by CHAP staff show a plan that will effectively desecrate an irreplaceable and celebrated historic structure in myriad ways.

In seeking a viable alternative to my in-person testimony regarding this latest modification, which the the surrounding business and residential community has not yet been apprised of, I requested on their behalf a simple set of plans and renderings to review. I was planning, in my former capacity as the long term former independent owner and steward of the Senator Theatre, built by my family in 1939, to be able to submit to the commissioners a clear, well-reasoned written list of informed observations and valid objections to the plans being considered for concept approval at today's CHAP hearing.

Unfortunately, as often occurs surrounding past hurried CHAP meetings regarding The Senator, I was not supplied any complete and up-to-date information, and what I received also contained no second floor plan at all, nor the details of existing exterior openings, cut-throughs, fire exits, materials and elevations required to evaluate the plan.

At 11:15 am today a fuzzy image appeared by email that was useless to me, particularly with a written submission deadline to CHAP, at at noon. The additional material I requested prior to today from CHAP was also requested by me from designer Alex Castro personally. What just arrived from CHAP staff are crude electronic images that are wholly insufficient to comprehend.

In light of the factors listed above, and the highly-charged significance of this oddly convoluted, public/private profit-sharing joint venture project intending to modify one of the most intact and celebrated motion picture theaters of its type remaining in America, I respectfully request that today's CHAP hearing on The Senator be postponed for cause.

Please note as well that today's hearing is inexplicably listed on CHAP's online agenda and in the document I was provided by staff as being submitted by my Senator Limited Partnership, which no longer owns the theatre.

Please postpone and re-scheduled the CHAP hearing to allow the public and myself to actively participate in an open and transparent agency process that is accountable to, and respects the rights of the citizen owners of The Senator Theatre.

Sincerely, Thomas Kiefaber

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My Comments for Today's CHAP Meeting on The Senator Theatre

I am unable to attend today's meeting of Baltimore City's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), which will consider the 4th significantly changed plan for The Senator Theatre submitted by the new operators in about a year. Instead, as one of the founding members of Friends of The Senator, I submitted my comments by email as follows:

Comment to be placed in the public record

Baltimore City CHAP:

The Senator Theatre is an important, largely intact and rare example of art deco/art moderne theater design by Baltimore-born theater architect John Zink. It is a precious component of Baltimore City’s built environment, which once lost, could never be replaced. It has been recognized nationally as an important monument on the National Register of Historic Places, and as such, it belongs not only to all citizens of Baltimore, but all citizens of the United States, the world, and future generations.

Thoughtful and well-planned preservation of historic buildings of the caliber of The Senator is essential for any metropolitan area that aspires to be both livable and a worthy destination for tourists.

It’s too early to make any informed decision on the latest plan submitted by City’s appointed lessees of The Senator, which is the 4th significantly different plan they’ve submitted in about a year. This new plan has not been seen by the public, and the plan that was submitted to CHAP, as of a few days ago, is nonsensical and incomplete, missing elevations and exit doors. It turns the historic theatre into a poorly planned multiplex and winebar, and still includes a proposal to mutilate the facade’s sight lines.

This has been the pattern all along: the new operators have submitted poorly thought out, incomplete plans which have slid by every approval stage of the process at the City level. Later, when they find out the plans won’t work, those plans change.

The BDC’s choice of a new operator, without any significant or legitimate input by either the public or historic theatre preservation professionals, has been a disaster so far.

The promised increase in traffic to the theatre has not materialized, nor do the numbers thus far support the suggestion that traffic will increase as promised once the project is complete. There comes a point where even exponential growth will not be enough, and this project is never going to attract the approximately 1,000 visitors per day attendance level that was projected in the original proposal to the City.

Worse yet, the theatre is not being adequately maintained. Marquee lights that burn out are left off for months. When parts of the aged neon go out, they are not reconnected. Graffiti is ignored and left to metastasize on the building’s exterior. The inner lobby is now painted an inappropriate color, found nowhere in the original design. A large plastic chute that was used in roof work to funnel debris to a dumpster is left hanging off the building, flapping in the breeze for months after the work was completed and the dumpster hauled away. The place looks like a dump.

The new operators have also shown beyond a doubt that they do not possess the aesthetic, historic, or design sensitivities to do an appropriate restoration. They initially proposed tearing out the original Ladies’ Lounge, a signature feature of Zink’s design for the building. This mutilation would never have been proposed by anyone with a real appreciation of the building’s design.

When that proposed change didn’t fly, for reasons that were obvious to everyone but the new operators and the BDC, they submitted a series of changed proposals. The one they submitted to the Maryland Historical Trust, in an attempt to get historic tax credits, was rejected by MHT, apparently due to its proposed mutilation of the building’s sight lines on the facade and/or its proposed mutilation of the original Men’s Lounge.

Perhaps unbeknownst to most of its members, Baltimore City’s CHAP commission has already done immeasurable harm to the future preservation prospects of The Senator Theatre, when it succumbed to ill-advised direction, apparently from Commissioner Robert C. Embry, in 2009, and placed ill-timed and probably unconstitutional interior landmark restrictions on The Senator Theatre, just in time to drive down the theatre’s value at auction, scaring off viable interested parties. This enabled Baltimore City to accomplish a land grab of The Senator from its former owner, Tom Kiefaber – a man who had made planning for and gathering the resources for the eventual judicious and top-notch restoration and preservation of the theatre his consuming passion and the number one priority in his life for over 20 years.

CHAP thus succeeded in handing The Senator Theatre over to the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), a body that is notoriously anti-preservation.

That Mr. Kiefaber was brutally harmed over a decade, and not helped in his determination to preserve The Senator, by the BDC and the Abell Foundation, is a permanent stain on the records of those organizations, to their everlasting shame.

The CHAP Commission is also tainted in this matter. It’s rife with conflicts of interest, since Mr. Embry, who has long worked to undermine Mr. Kiefaber, and Mr. Cusack, the new operator chosen by the BDC, are both on the board.

This Commission has been rendered incapable of making any decision regarding The Senator that will not be tainted by its politicized record.

I’m through with pretending that The Senator Theatre was acquired from its former owner by a legitimate process, put through a legitimate RFP process by the BDC, and is now being put through a legitimate design review process. I’m not going to give lip service to those falsehoods any longer.

None of this is legitimate. It’s all been one big shameful corrupt fiasco from the beginning. As one of the citizen owners of The Senator Theatre, I reject this body’s authority to make any decision that will allow any modification of The Senator Theatre by the current operators, who have clearly shown that they don’t deserve the honor.

The only legitimate decision that CHAP could make, in my opinion, is to put a moratorium on ANY changes to The Senator until such time as Baltimore City’s lease to the current operators is revoked, and a legitimate historic theatre planning process is done by real, nationally recognized professionals in the field, with the full input of the former owner and the community. Anything less is a travesty and a shame.


Laura Perkins
Friends of The Senator Theatre

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