Historic Annapolis considers itself a guardian of the city. The nonprofit preserves the physical remnants of history, but also something less tangible: the way one of the oldest towns in America looks.

So when the mayor proposed a $10 million, glass-walled maritime welcome center at City Dock — placing it right atop an $88 million public works project to protect downtown from climate-driven flooding — it got their attention.

“City Dock has changed throughout its history,” said Karen Brown, the soft-spoken CEO and president of Historic Annapolis, or HA. “And preservation can be very forward-thinking. We recognize that this is an area that’s ripe for redevelopment.”

Exactly what they oppose can be hard to figure out.

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Karen Brown, left, CEO and president of Historic Annapolis, stands next to the Burtis House at City Dock with Jane Campbell Chambliss, a member of the board of directors and, right, Vice President for Preservation Rachael Robinson.
Karen Brown, left, CEO and president of Historic Annapolis, stands next to the Burtis House at City Dock with Jane Campbell Chambliss, a member of the board of directors and, right, Vice President for Preservation Rachel Robinson. (Rick Hutzell)

One reason is Mayor Gavin Buckley, the plan’s chief booster.

He’s a brassy transplant whose big Aussie accent and personality have only slightly muted after 30 years in Annapolis. He’s made the flood resilience plan, which would raise part of downtown, and the proposed welcome center the big keys to the legacy he hopes to leave behind when his last term ends in 2025.

And he’s very good at dominating the public discussion in Maryland’s small-town capital.

“We have a City Dock park that is basically concrete that floods on a regular basis,” he said Tuesday, introducing the plan to two panels that must approve it. “Today, you will see what we think is going to be one of the most visited buildings in the city.”

Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley talks about the trip he'll lead to The Netherlands on Saturday for a five-day tour of climate flooding and bicycling infrastructure. The $90 million project to protect downtown Annapolis from flooding would replace the parking lot with a new city park.
Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley is pushing a project to protect downtown Annapolis from flooding and that would replace the parking lot with a new city park. (Rick Hutzell)

The debate has gone something like this.

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Buckley says 2024 is on track to have 120 floods, double the record number from five years ago. Historic Annapolis talks about how the planned new trees and pergola might impede the view from Main Street.

HA emails thousands of supporters with a call to public advocacy. He declares war on HA.

The group talks about the “massing” effect of the welcome center at the water’s edge. The mayor talks about enjoying the view from its second floor, and maybe getting a beer or oyster fritter on the first floor.

On one side of the Burtis House — the last remaining waterman’s house downtown — they talk about ensuring the center is “subordinate” to the historic site.

On the other side, Buckley builds a tiny beach, hangs a banner proclaiming the future of City Dock, and drops a few cheap plastic chairs. Then he hoists a famous flag of American defiance, “Don’t Give Up The Ship!”

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“These people are trying to slow and stop us,” Buckley said.

Mayor Gavin Buckley set up a small beach, plastic Adirondack chairs, a banner and a defiant flag at the site of the proposed maritime welcome center. It's temporary, he said, and he paid for the chairs himself.
Mayor Gavin Buckley set up a small beach, plastic Adirondack chairs, a banner and a defiant flag at the site of the proposed maritime welcome center. It’s temporary, he said, and he paid for the chairs himself. (Rick Hutzell)

The modern structure would feature walls of weathered wood and glass, making it almost see-through. Glass connectors would link it to Burtis House, which would get renovated and raised 6 feet to match the new height of City Dock.

The combined structure would replace the existing harbor master’s office and Visit Annapolis kiosk with room to spare. Plans shown to the Planning and Historic Preservation commissions last week include bathrooms, laundry machines and other facilities for boaters staying overnight in the harbor.

It would add flexible conference and office space, waterfront seating, room for small boat launches or classes, an oyster bar intended to highlight the history of Burtis House, and outdoor food space intended for lease.

The new City Dock park — which would include a grassy area, a fountain, a boat-themed pergola and performance spaces — would be on one side. Features could be moved around to make way for major events such as the fall boat shows, and electrical panels scattered around the area today would be combined and disguised.

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Pop-up barriers would connect with new flood measures at the Naval Academy, then wrap around the park and the boat channel over to Compromise Street.

An artist's rendering shows the proposed look of a new park at City Dock, with the proposed Maritime Welcome Center to the left.
An artist’s rendering shows the proposed look of a new park at City Dock, with the Maritime Welcome Center to the left. (BCT Design Group)

On the Prince George Street side, Burtis House would face another, smaller park, next to the city’s two long wharfs and a gate leading into the academy.

It is the most controversial part of the yearslong effort to save City Dock, an economic development project attached to the plan to protect billions in property and cultural assets. For HA, it’s all moving too fast — and the rhetoric about war too combative.

“What’s unfortunate about [Buckley’s] comment about being at war with Historic Annapolis is that there’s so many areas where we align,” Brown said. “We did a video that speaks to it about all the areas where we really do support this project and, you know, primarily for resiliency considerations, but also place-making and reimagining this space.”

Buckley can probably win a contest of rhetoric. He stresses the need to act soon, citing the threat of increased flooding.

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But the resiliency project is only 70% designed as the city continues to secure federal grants, not an unusual state for something this complex. Funding will come from a complex leasing deal on the city’s downtown parking garage, state and federal aid, and grants — not all of which are finalized.

The welcome center was split off from the larger project to speed up approval of the flood measures. It will be paid for out of the city’s construction plan, and operated with funds from the city budget, just like its recreation center.

Together, this remake of the Annapolis waterfront could cost more than $100 million when completed, Buckley said Friday. That’s twice the original ballpark estimate.

A rendering of the proposed Maritime Welcome center from the Prince George Street pier shows how it would connect to the historic Burtis House.
A rendering of the proposed Maritime Welcome center from the Prince George Street pier shows how it would connect to the historic Burtis House. (BCT Design Group)

More change is coming to City Dock.

Atlas Restaurant Group, the Baltimore firm that runs Choptank at City Dock, is replacing Pusser’s Caribbean Grille at the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel with Marmo and Armada, an Italian restaurant and tequila bar working its way through local approvals. (Full disclosure, my wife works at the hotel.)

And Harvey Blonder, the owner of the Latitude 38 restaurant next to the welcome center site, has a hotel proposal in the wings that will require a change in city height limits to win approval.

Seeing the whole picture, even trying to grasp the city projects, is hard. That may be the biggest hurdle for HA.

“What is challenging for both us who watch this professionally and for the community, is that it’s just so piecemeal,” said Rachel Robinson, vice president for preservation at Historic Annapolis. “We understand a phased implementation of this project over the years and different funding mechanisms, but not being able to see the plan in totality, I think, is a challenge.”

The city has compromised since first pitching the welcome center last year. After a series of community meetings, the project team, led by Eileen Fogarty, reduced its size by 500 square feet and rotated it 90 degrees to face the water directly. Another meeting is planned May 30.

“From this really large cross-section of people, we heard one consistent theme,” Fogarty told the joint meeting last week. “Please create the best public space for use by the entire community so that everyone feels welcome, reduce some of the volume of the welcome center, make sure the welcome center is reoriented so that it faces our bay, and make sure the public can have direct access to view this incredible harbor from the second deck.”

Did they get it right? Will Historic Annapolis’ criticisms alter the final result?

Only one thing is certain, flooding is in the forecast for the next three days.

An artist's rendering of how a proposed maritime welcome center would look from aboard a boat in the Annapolis Harbor.
An artist’s rendering of how a proposed maritime welcome center would look from aboard a boat in the Annapolis Harbor. (Mahan Rykiel Associates)