Sunday, the fading glory of Maryland’s most scenic parking lot was on display.
City Dock, a magnet for millions of visitors to Annapolis each year, is a stretch of asphalt and brick facing a historic waterfront view. Just as it is every weekend when the weather is nice, competition on Mother’s Day for the 150 or so parking spaces was fierce.
Drivers circled the lot, swiveling their heads in search of that one open slot required before brunch with mom could start. Awkwardly pulling the wrong way into a diagonal space was a common, winning strategy.
The days of this underwhelming sight are numbered.
On June 14, Annapolis will open its new Noah Hillman garage, constructed over the past year within the footprint of the city’s original downtown parking structure. It will add 165 spaces, bringing the total to 590; offer gateless entry; run on text and app payment systems; be powered by solar panels; and have stormwater controls to capture runoff pollution.
Oh, and there will be pickleball courts on the roof, space for farmers markets and wedding receptions that offer a sweeping view of the skyline of Maryland’s historic state capital. It is, as one consultant involved in the project said, a very nice garage.
“I think once this opens we’re going to have people coming out of the woodwork when they come up here and look at this incredible location,” said Eileen Fogarty, a former city planner who now heads the City Dock Action Committee.
It’s an apt name. The opening of Hillman is the key to action on City Dock. After decades of talk, years of deliberations and some very creative financing, Annapolis embarks this fall on reinventing its most famous waterfront. The result, architects of the $54 million plan say, will be higher and drier as sea-level rise presents greater risks of flooding, but done in a way that creates a better-functioning heart of Annapolis.
“We’ve got to build this, we have to do it,” Mayor Gavin Buckley said. “But when we build it’s going to create jobs, it’s going to create a tax base. It’s going to protect the city for the next 50 to 100 years.”
What comes next, though, is open for debate. Legislation to change how height and bulk limits are calculated for buildings in the area is working its way through the City Council. Critics say that preventing watery flooding can’t be an excuse to open the floodgates of redevelopment.
“As you weave around City Dock, all the way to the yacht club, there are several areas that could also be redeveloped,” said Karen Brown, president of Historic Annapolis. “We do have concerns about precedent, and that’s why we hold firm on viewshed protections and that sense of scale that we’ve had over a century.”
The Buckley administration, led by Fogarty and Public Works Director David Jarrell, will begin the approval process for details of an updated City Dock this summer. Once those plans are given the go-ahead by various panels, the work will begin in January. It will start at Donner parking lot — a small triangle of parking on Compromise Street — and then proceed over the next 18 to 24 months.
Plans as currently drawn will create higher green spaces to absorb and block flooding, floodwalls and wider boardwalks as well as a hard-surface park featuring a fountain and a pergola. Parking will shift to Hillman. The latest plan includes barriers that will rise as floodwaters do, storm drains and pumps, as well as links to a Naval Academy project to raise the institution’s seawall. The various elements intended to block water from inundating several blocks — up to the 7-foot surge that Tropical Storm Isabel pushed into the area 20 years ago.
But it also will include a maritime welcome center, a two-story building covering 4,000 square feet right on Spa Creek. It will house the relocated Harbormaster’s Office, amenities for visiting boaters such as laundry and showers, public bathrooms, kayak and paddleboard launches and a space for the city-county tourism agency. The building would replace the current office, located farther from the water.
It would rise next to the Burtis House, a 19th-century waterman’s home being relocated from nearby Dock Street. The renovated house is a collaboration with the National Park Service and the state of Maryland, intended as headquarters for the Chesapeake National Recreation Area. The area is a proposed national park tying together sites all along the bay centered in Annapolis.
To construct a welcome center big enough to house those various functions, Buckley has introduced legislation to change how buildings are measured against height and bulk limits within the horseshoe-shaped area surrounding Ego Alley, the waterway at the center City Dock. It has been designated by Federal Emergency Management Agency maps as representing a special flood risk.
“What this ordinance says is everything now is going to be at a different height,” Fogarty said. “So, all it does is acknowledge that we have what I would call a specific plan for this immediate area.”
Despite those assurances, Brown and others see the bill as opening the door for a hotel on land next to the new park space owned by developer Harvey Blonder and currently operated as a restaurant. Buckley and Blonder have circulated a three-story hotel concept dubbed “Le Meritime.” No proposal has been submitted to the city.
To show the possible impact, Historic Annapolis will release next week the findings of a mapping study it commissioned.
“We’re hoping this mapping study will illustrate what’s at risk and what’s critical to preserve with this very exciting ... redevelopment project,” Brown said.
Buckley has yet to finalize details of the plan for the welcome center, but he has shown an artist’s rendering to various civic groups. The drawing features a structure with wraparound decks, large windows and a peaked roof. It also has an area marked “oyster bar” facing the water.
Buckley said the drawing does not accurately represent the current concept. He is concerned that lengthy discussions about the center, other parts of the plan and a potential hotel on private land next door will delay the completion of the project, which he hopes will happen just as his term ends in 2025. He supports the idea of a hotel but said it will require separate approval.
“We have to keep the momentum of the project going,” Buckley said.
The bigger takeaway from this project, though, may not be in what the end result looks like. Other cities are already looking at how Annapolis paid for it, using the garage to finance both climate change protections and to upgrade a cultural centerpiece.
The mayor said he was surprised recently when he attended a conference on resilience projects to see Annapolis and its use of the garage cited as an example. By signing a contract with a consortium of firms that rebuilt the garage, will operate it for decades and remake City Dock, Annapolis came up with almost $25 million in fees for the project plus another $1 million in annual revenue.
It is raising the rest through county, state and federal sources. The more money it raises, the more some of that money from the garage can fund other climate change projects.
Dan Nees, director of policy and finance at the consulting firm Throwe Environmental, was an early adviser to the project and is credited by Buckley with coming up with the model. He said local governments from Anne Arundel County to California are now looking at their own infrastructure assets as a way to pay for billions of dollars needed to address climate change.
The garage is not just a nice garage, that will clear parking from City Dock.
“It will be a model because communities are struggling to finance infrastructure in general,” Nees said. “That means we’ve got to find innovative ways to finance climate change infrastructure.”