Salisbury Rising: Salisbury enjoying a renaissance … at an accelerating pace

morgan web 1

Renowned Salisbury architect Ron Morgan heads Becker Morgan Architects. (Special To Salisbury Independent/Tony Weeg)

When you listen to Ron Morgan talk about Salisbury, you immediately recognize that he “gets” Salisbury. And it’s quickly clear that he has used his professional training to help make Salisbury a better place, as he and his colleagues have had a design hand in nearly every significant building that’s been constructed locally in the past 33 years.

Tom Becker and Ron Morgan teamed to found Becker Morgan Group in 1983. The duo quickly became known for taking on high-profile projects in the residential and hospitality sectors. In a time known for lots of uninspired architecture, these designers were known for their attention to form as well as function.

With Becker’s recent retirement, Morgan serves as the firm’s president and oversees four offices, 18 shareholders and nearly 80 employees. He has a well-established reputation for fostering a collaborative work environment. His respect for the younger generation of architects — even after 40 successful years in the business — has made him a unique professional figure.

Holder of a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Maryland in College Park, he is the past president of the Maryland Society of Architects, as well as the Chesapeake Chapter of AIA, having served in a leadership capacity with each organization for several years.

He has long been active in civic and community organizations, including The Salisbury School, Greater Salisbury Committee and BB&T Advisory Board.

He and his wife, mortgage broker Hope Morgan, live in High Banks in Salisbury.

Q. How has Salisbury changed during your career as an architect?

A. When I think of Salisbury, I think of Downtown. As a lifelong Salisburian, I’ve seen gradual change over time, while much has remained the same.

Salisbury has grown as the hub of commerce, health care and higher education to become a metropolitan center … its sense of place / cohesion as a community has evolved from a small town to a small city.

Surrounding cities have attracted those interested in living in a small town atmosphere … the loss of many longstanding Salisburians to live elsewhere that has diminished diversity, cultural and economic vitality.

While positive change is returning, it will likely take much time to return to its former vibrancy.

Perhaps one of most profound instruments of change on the city has been how transportation has shaped the built environment.

Transportation-centric thinking has damaged Salisbury’s cohesion as a community. Bisecting Downtown, broad boulevards only a few blocks long — they have served to divide rather than unify.

There’s a profound interest in glorified short-cuts.

In a recent presentation, Mayor (Jake) Day noted that “if we intended to separate Downtown from the rest of Salisbury … with U.S. 50, U.S. 13, Mill and Carroll Streets … we certainly could not have done it any better.” I completely agree.

It’s an enormous challenge to reconnect these now separate components. Changing the damage created by transportation is just beginning.

Q. Do you see the city changing now in the past few years?

A. Yes. Salisbury is currently enjoying a renaissance — at an accelerating pace — via new leadership, plus a new generation of young adults that value community, socialization and a sense of place.

Q. Is there one thing we can point to that explains the change?

A. It’s difficult to identify a single reason for this renaissance. My perception is it’s a blending of new leadership with vision, passion, energy and a collaborative spirit.

Q. You all took a big chance when you renovated the Port Exchange in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What was that experience like?

A. In the late ’80s, the city was still relatively new to the redevelopment process. After several attempts with out-of-town developers, with disappointing results, Terry Sell, Tom Fisher, Tom Becker and I formed a partnership to rehabilitate the former G&K Warehouse, a  property owned by the city under a former failed urban renewal initiative.

The city was contemplating demolition of the abandoned dilapidated warehouse in order to create a public park, for visibility of passing motorists on Route 50 — again, transportation-centric thinking.

We were able to convince the city to declare it  as “surplus property” and offer it for public sale. The city issued an RFP (Request For Proposal), for which we were the only respondent.

After much negotiation, we were able to save the structure from demolition, and have enjoyed occupancy for 26 years.

While the process was challenging, it’s been one of the most personally rewarding projects of my career — a unique combination of architecture, history, civic responsibility, investment and stewardship.

Q. Back then, you and Tom Becker showed a commitment to Downtown that wasn’t exactly shared by others.

A. At the time, most architects and engineers were focused on publically funded projects, such as schools and government buildings. We saw an opportunity for private development, and our firm grew quickly to fill that need, but to say Tom and I were alone is inaccurate.

Bill Ahtes

Bill Ahtes

Certainly much credit is owed to Bill Ahtes, as he was an early pioneer in Downtown redevelopment. Many have followed, most on a lesser scale, but that’s more appropriate,  given Salisbury’s scale an finite urban fabric.
Certainly Palmer and Tony at Gillis Gilkerson have lead Downtown redevelopment in recent years … and now Devreco, with Brad Gillis and Joey Gilkerson continuing that pursuit.

Q. Has economic expansion come slower to the city’s waterfront than you would have expected?

A. Yes. I remember in the 1960s the Wicomico River’s east prong was a trash ditch through Downtown — not an asset, nor a potential orientation for public use. I can remember working as a construction laborer in the mid-’70s on the Urban Riverwalk, hotel and nursing home projects, having to excavate what was formerly a dump site filling the former Humphrey’s Lake.

In 1980, as a newly licensed architect, I volunteered to participate in R/UDAT (Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team) – a multidisciplinary team of professionals assembled by the  American Institute of Architects, to assist struggling communities envision a vibrant future.

That program generated much awareness of the unique environmental features the waterfront offered to the city of Salisbury.

The R/UDAT plan inspired much public interest and investment, and has subsequently lead to several Downtown redevelopment initiatives. During the recession, that passion faded, but with new leadership, the city has acknowledged its lead role in the redevelopment process, as the city controls much of the Downtown area, from years of property acquisition as urban renewal.

Q. What are your thoughts about River View Commons?

A. Certainly I’m biased, as we designed it. It’s a good example of adaptive reuse — saving a historic, but deteriorating building in a highly visible location.

Construction is nearing completion and will be fully occupied. This rehabilitation has already had positive impact, and hopefully it inspires others to invest in the urban core.

Q. What has been your favorite professional project in Salisbury?

A. Perhaps obvious, but like I said before, the Port Exchange ranks highest for me of my Salisbury projects, as it represents a responsible stewardship of architecture, history and community.

It’s been awarded several recognitions from industry peers in preservation, adaptive reuse and architectural design.

Q. What is your favorite building in Salisbury?

A. It’s difficult to identify a single building, as there are many I find interesting. If I had to note one that I’d like to be my next project, it would have to be the Dorman & Smith Hardware — known as Thomas R. Young Building — on the Plaza.

I find its design, use of materials and street-presence to be very interesting.

Q. It seems that the younger generation of Salisbury’s leaders finally share a vision that I’ve heard you articulate for years. How does that feel?

A. I’m encouraged and  proud to have played a role in stewardship of Downtown. Great cities have great downtowns, and that happens over a significant period of time, so there must be many generations of participants.

Almost no single individual or project can have dominant impact, so continuity over time is maintained by a shared vision.

Q. Salisbury doesn’t have a reputation for lots of great architecture. Is that really the case? Is there interesting architecture here?

A. Yes, while there may be less great architecture, there’s an abundance of good architecture here, perhaps just less apparent.

Our community is composed of a more humble personality, which translates to our architecture.

There’s good architecture in many of the simpler buildings … historic structures … good proportions, scale, use of materials.

Good design doesn’t have to be boastful.

Q. How do you see the city progressing in terms of its building and design?

A. I see a continuing, but gradual path toward better design. There’s an increasing recognition that good design supports business, learning, lifestyle and community pride.

Economic instability has challenged development confidence in recent years, but that has resulted in less quantity, but higher quality architecture.

Q. You could live and work anywhere. Why have you chosen to make a life and career here?

A. Salisbury  has offered me a great environment for most everything I value: family, friends, professional challenge, education and recreation — all in a relaxed setting.

I enjoy travel, but always seem to prefer life here.

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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