Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How tall in Fells Point?

The new zoning code passed a critical council vote last night but it doesn't answered how high one should be able to build in the middle of a historic district with buildings not over 30' tall.

Fells Point historic core  facing Thames Street
(photo: Philipsen)
The question how high one should be able to build in Fells Point has moved the community for decades. Even in a historic district that has protections for existing structures, a non-contributing building may get razed or a vacant lot may get built up. Then only the zoning code applies and not the historic district rules. Unless there is an urban renewal plan, an overlay district, a PUD or a variance. Confusing? You bet, negotiating the thicket of land use rules is a challenge for communities and developers alike.

The new zoning code was supposed to be the knight on the white horse that would simplify matters. It could have made historic preservation an integral part of zoning instead of a parallel set of rules. It is supposed to do away with urban renewal plans and would greatly reduce the planned unit developments, the open barn-door if one wants to leave the thicket and reduce the hearings about variances.

Now after the City Council nodded the code through, everybody has to find out what is really in it. That is because the last time there was a firm bill was when the Planning Department introduced it in the form they had written the code. Since then, hundreds of amendments have muddied the waters and the bill was never been consolidated into one again.

It looks like that the question of how high one should be allowed to build in the (local) Fells Point Historic District (or any other historic district) will remain a matter that the underlying code will not decidedly resolve, because it is written for areas that are not historic districts. For properties not under the protection of the preservation law it will still need another piece of legislation, such as an "Overlay District" that limits heights in a certain area and suspends the underlying height limits.
Reservoir Hill: the tall Emerson next to the low rowhouses

There are many examples around the world or in Baltimore where a historic low building sits comfortably next to a tall new one. There are even historic tall buildings sitting comfortably next to historic low ones as, for example, the Belvedere in Mount Vernon, the Marlborough on Eutaw Place or the Emerson in Reservoir Hill. The modern high- rise apartment towers on Charles Street just north of Northern Parkway are probably still a matter of dispute for some. Although they fit neither in scale nor style, they have nevertheless become a valuable attribute of the area. This is to say, historic buildings or even historic districts should not automatically mean low or matching height. But regulators can't dodge the issue and at one point need to say yea or nay.
Overlay Districts that were proposed but not enacted for height
limits in Fells Point (Baltimore Brew)

As for Fells Point: Beyond the large and tall warehouse structures that have been there forever (like Henderson Wharf), it would probably be a good idea to protect the fabric of old Fells Point and keep the height limit to the prevailing height of 30'-45', just as the communities said they wanted it (the Fell’s Point Residents Association, Fell’s Point and Fell’s Prospect Community Association, Upper Fell’s Point Improvement Association and the Preservation Society). There is plenty of opportunity all around to have tall buildings, anybody who has been out there lately can see that those opportunities are, indeed, being realized. No need to have them sprout at the heart of this lovely community.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

For details about Councilman Kraft's maneuvering in this matter see Baltimore Brew.
For details about yesterday's debate read Luke Braodwaters report in the SUN
.