CAMBRIDGE – Increasingly frustrated city residents and business owners are looking for a resolution to the condition of a structure in the heart of downtown. After standing vacant for many years at 509-511 Race St., the Hearn Hardware Store building experienced the collapse of one wall on Oct. 28, 2015.
Falling bricks damaged the adjacent Tolley Theater property and raised concerns that the façade might be the next to tumble. The 500 block of Race Street was shut down for more than four months, and a fence was erected on the sidewalk to keep pedestrians safe from falling debris.
The building, erected in approximately 1914, was originally known as the United Stores Company building. USC changed its name to the Herbert Hearn Hardware Company in 1919, and the building served for many years as one of the hardware stores in town, until the Herbert Hearn Company sold the building in 1975.
A number of other businesses were located there until around 2010, when the building became vacant. The roof suffered a partial collapse during the years before the wall came down.
Questions regarding the next steps arose right away, with some calling for the building’s demolition. Others held out for renovation, citing funding issues.
Cambridge Main Street Director Brandon Hesson said in 2015, “If we knock the walls and the back of the building down, and we save the façade — like what was done with the 400 block of Race Street — then the building is still technically historic and partially intact, so that a developer still has access to historic tax credits at the state and federal level. If you knock the whole building down, that property becomes a parking lot that produces zero tax revenue. It would have absolutely no value (to the city). And, to knock it down, let’s say it costs $250,000 — and the taxpayers have to pay every nickel of that.”
In the months immediately after the collapse, business owners in the 500 block contended with the results of a blocked street. They experienced some relief when Race Street was reopened and the façade – the decorative front of the building – was supported by steel pillars.
In the years since, city and county government agencies have heard plans, weighed options and considered expenses. Meanwhile, the building has remained as it was in 2015, with an appearance that many find detrimental to the city’s image and commercial activity.
Henry VanDyke owns Lil’ Bitta Bull BBQ restaurant across the street from the Hearn Building. On Jan. 6, he posted his views online, and received dozens of responses.
“Cambridge it's time to do something with this money pit! This EYE SORE would not be acceptable for Poplar St. or the 400 Block of Race St.,” he wrote. “So why are you continuing to allow this to degrade our city? Require the owners to reopen the sidewalks and make the front presentable to our community. Before we focus on growth let's focus on maintaining what we already have! Enough is enough!”
City Commission President and Acting Mayor Lajan Cephas replied, “Code Enforcement will be reviewing the property for violations. Also, Green Street Housing LLC currently have site control and their project is being led by Dave Layfield.
“Ken Holt (Director of DHCD) and Owen McEvoy (Deputy’ Director) are fully engaged financially in this project. I was told by Owen today that he has directed Green Street Housing LLC to stabilize the front so the beams can be removed.
“This has already been in motion. When we find out the date of stabilization we will share with the public. But let’s remember this building has not been at a total standstill.
“The roof has been replaced and Green Street Housing LLC gave a presentation to the commission about possible housing units in this building maybe six months ago. Due to concerns of the commission, they are currently working on a revision of the original proposal.
“Hopefully in a few months, the public will understand the vision and know that we are moving forward with the redevelopment of the Hearn Building with the state of Maryland (DHCD) backing the project.”
Shana Morgan posted, “That building does nothing for the overall view of the city. To the outside, it just makes Cambridge look even more run down. Something needs to change if we want Cambridge to ever make a comeback.”
City Commissioner Chad Malkus (Ward 5) joined the conversation, writing, “You certainly have been patient and your concerns are valid. A few points:
1) As I understand it, structurally the supports should be able to come down now because of the installation of the roof to stabilize it.
2) The reason why the building was spared is important. Basically they don’t make them like that anymore and when it’s gone, it’s gone. When a façade like that is saved, a property owner can use historic tax credits to renovate the building which is extremely important from a financial perspective. You can’t afford to renovate a building of that size and historic character without those credits.
3) Plans that have been presented up to this point for the building have been very unsatisfactory and problematic.
4) However, there is a great potential plan in the works that will hopefully get the support of the state and within the next six to nine months we could see a lot of very important changes and improvements.
“The point of all this is that it’s not being ignored and I appreciate you wanting something to happen. I too get extremely frustrated at the pace of things, particularly when state funding is involved.”
“Fix it or tear it down, I really don’t care,” Mr. VanDyke wrote. “Just do something with it now!”
Mr. Malkus said, “We are all trying but there are also a lot of obstacles in place that make the pace of things very frustrating.”