Annapolis unveiled its long-awaited design for a maritime welcome center Wednesday, part of an $88 million reimagining of City Dock to protect the historic city from rising seas and climate change.

It now faces an ambitious timeline and uncertain public response. The City Dock design goes before three key bodies with approval powers next month, perhaps none more important than the Maryland Historical Trust.

Driving it all is another deadline. Twenty years after Tropical Storm Isabel inundated the area with a storm surge, every increasingly volatile storm season without stronger flood protections brings a risk of greater destruction.

“This is the City Dock for the next 50 years, if not longer,” Mayor Gavin Buckley told members of a committee that has helped shape the plan over the past five years. “We have to get it right.”

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So did the city get it right?

The broad outlines have been public for years. Now, with details filled in and the financial cost clear, Buckley and other authors of the plan are about to get an answer.

Some of those who helped the city get to this point want to make sure there is time to respond to public comment before those crucial meetings next month.

“We have listened to concerned neighbors from across Annapolis,” Karen Brown, the president and CEO of Historic Annapolis, recently told the City Council. “People feel they are being left out of the process. Please continue the conversation with the public … to produce the best version of the City Dock project while protecting and preserving the historic character and scale of Annapolis, so prized by its citizens and visitors.”

The Maritime Welcome Center would be combined with the historic Burtis House, right, and face the new park at City Dock. Situated behind a seawall, one criticism was that it is not enough of a gateway to the Chesapeake Bay. (Courtesy of BCT Design Group)

Most surface parking would be removed, with drivers encouraged to use a recently opened city garage. That would free the city’s most prominent plaza for a landscaped park, complete with a fountain, a pergola and walkways that can be shifted to accommodate an expanded range of activities. The spot is already used for activities ranging from concerts and memorials to the fall boat shows that attract tens of thousands.

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Seawalls that can be raised to 8 feet — one foot more than Isabel’s deluge — would wrap around the shoreline. Combined with a stone seawall being built at the Naval Academy, that height should protect the most vulnerable part of the city — homes and buildings dating to the foundations of America.

Buckley said his goal is to see this project finished before the next Isabel comes along. Human-driven climate change has raised the water level already, so tidal flooding occurs more than 50 times each year. The city has taken small steps to deal with that, but higher water means a higher surge when a big storm finally comes.

The mayor also wants to wrap up work before his final term ends in December 2025. He sees an array of critics and compares their opposition to an effort that killed a maritime welcome center plan 10 years ago.

The new proposal is the final piece to be made public, and perhaps the most controversial. Drawings of earlier iterations have floated around town, but the design displayed Wednesday night is the one project leaders want to take before the City Council, the Annapolis Planning Commission and the trust.

“Not only is it about resiliency but it’s really about placemaking and being able to add an amenity for the city downtown, around which should really be social and economic development,” said Bryce Turner, a member of the committee whose company, BCT Design Group, won the design contract. “That’s so important because if that doesn’t work, then none of this does.”

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What Turner and others came up with is big and right on the Annapolis Harbor. The center’s twin gables would rise 32 feet above the ground, which also is being raised as part of the flood protections. The height required special approval from the council.

The maritime center would be merged with the historic Burtis House next door, the last vestige of the working waterfront that defined Annapolis for its first 350 years.

It is the 19th-century home of William Burtis, a waterman who worked in the seafood industry and early waterfront tourism. The state transferred ownership to the city last year, and the plan calls for elevating the building to protect it from future floods.

Together, they would encompass three stories — a waterproof basement, a first floor just above the new ground level, and a second floor with expansive balconies. The design incorporates massive glass windows and a wooden facade that would weather over the years to silver.

The waterfront around the center would include areas for seating, kayaks and paddleboards, dingy tie-ups and dock space — potentially for tourism ferries.

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The center would replace the brick building farther back from the water, as well as a nearby visitor’s information kiosk and a utility structure known as the “birdhouse.” That would expand space for the park but also widen the view of the water from the foot of Main Street.

How well all of that space respects the historic character of Annapolis and serves its future needs is likely to be the focus of debate before the three key panels going forward.

“I hope this is just one iteration,” said state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, who helped win millions in state funding for the project. “I’ve been involved in the planning for years. We want to make sure Burtis House is incorporated into the plan well.”

The center would replace a brick building farther from the water, which is now home to the Harbormaster’s Office. If it is approved, it could open the door for privately owned buildings in the area to be redeveloped at the same or greater height. (Courtesy of BCT Design Group)

The National Park Service in Annapolis plans to use the Burtis House as a headquarters, creating a central gateway to the Chesapeake Bay. If the proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area is approved by Congress, that would make the center a key entry point to a national park.

“It’s not welcoming enough to the water,” Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent of the existing Chesapeake Gateways program, said during Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s not a gateway to the bay.”

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The center would provide a new home for the harbormaster, as well as bathrooms, showers and services for boaters who have made Annapolis a popular destination. A market house-style oyster bar is intended to bring watermen back to the city. Given the total price tag, a second-floor conference room might be the most expensive meeting space in Maryland.

“There are so many things it’s trying to do,” said Turner, the architect behind the design. “It serves many masters.”

There are many elements still to settle. The plan includes winning a $32 million federal grant later this year — and combined with city, county and state money that leaves only a $6 million gap. If the center is built as proposed, owners of private buildings along City Dock might ask for permission to exceed the height limits.

Brown, the head of Historic Annapolis, issued a statement praising the city for taking the plan to the City Dock Action Committee on Wednesday night. But how well the process has captured public sentiment is unclear.

The committee, which met as a whole for the first time in more than six months to see the design, is largely affluent and white. Individual teams, small groups focused on aspects of the plan, have been meeting regularly.

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A few Black residents took part in the process, but those who did said the invitation to participate was an important step.

“Tonight is about so much more than, can people come to Annapolis for two or three days and feel at home,” said the Rev. Carletta Allen, a committee member and pastor of the city’s oldest Black church, Asbury United Methodist Church. “Even more importantly, can people who live here feel like this is home?”

“That’s what we want. Not just for the person who has the resources to boat in here or fly in here. But for those who live here are the kids who have never had more access.”

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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