Thursday, June 14, 2018

When it rains it pours: Development in Woodberry

When it rains it pours, the saying goes, and residents of historic Woodberry, a small "village" in the valley of the Jones Falls think that is certainly true for the development raining into their community. They even mean it literally when they darkly refer to historic Ellicott City, a place that, some say, has been drowning not only from too much rain but too much run-off caused from too much development.
Screenshot of PI.KL Studio section

It isn't particularly new that existing residents don't like additional development. While rain and stormwater run-off may be a fairly novel argument in the arsenal, traffic flow has long been a staple to fend off new development. Then there is the concern of gentrification, school overcrowding, the state of infrastructure, the loss of historic structures, authenticity and history, and the eternal question where everybody will park.

Increasingly, developers go to battle armed with studies and a vocabulary designed to squash the litany of complaints from progressively minded citizens on their own terms.

This was on full display today when Chris Mfume, youngest son of the iconic Baltimorean  Kweisi Mfume, had his architects present his apartment project in Woodberry to UDAAP, Baltimore's recently revamped design review panel. Residents will get to see the presentation on Monday June 19 as well. Battle experience was also on display when Caroline Paff and her team presented early masterplan concepts to the Woodberry community last Tuesday, a presentation that landed on the front page of the SUN paper above the fold. Paff had been baptized by fire when she worked for Sagamore Development and its many highly contentious public presentations.
Clipper Mill area with the Tractor Building in the center (Sun photo)

The focus on Woodberry brought Baltimore's attention back to a segment that has become known  as the "White L", the parts of Baltimore where most development happens and where communities are predominantly white. Recently, several proposals for community reinvestment and social impact funds had directed attention to the "black butterfly" sections of townfor a while, to places where development is way too infrequent, but where it is seen with even more suspicion with concerns around displacement and gentrification trumping everything else.

The presentation for a new 80 unit studio apartment building wedged between light rail tracks and narrow Clipper Road had generated a disproportionately big swirl of media postings thanks to two very old stone buildings standing on the swath of land which Mfume had acquired. Those buildings are part of a quite intact assembly of some 32 historic worker housing units associated with the historic industries and mills clustering in the river valley.  Those old mills and their related architecture had long been neglected and lain fallow in the shadow of the elevated JFX, barely noticeable from the cars zipping by on the expressway, but in plain view from the light rail line which shuttled suburban riders through here since 1992.
Chris Mfume of CLD Development presenting

The  mills seemed to be doomed for good when London Fog move out of town and the head building of the Clipper Mill industrial park was consumed by a gigantic fire which killed a young Baltimore fireman when the front wall collapsed on him in September of 1995.

Much has changed since then. Nearby Hampden has turned from a quirky, and often considered racist, white, working class community, into a sought-after, diverse neighborhood with a bustling "main street". Union Mill on Union Avenue has become teacher housing and its power plant has become a rustic coffee shop. London Fog is now Meadow Mill with a fancy restaurant, an athletic club, performance spaces, consultant offices and a bakery, the result of  an investment by Developer Sam Himmelrich. He and his former partner Tufaro have been especially creative in re-purposing the old Jones Falls Valley Mills with Himmelrich converting one such complex to Baltimore's first Whole Foods further upstream, and Tufaro more recently completing  Mills # and #2 along Falls Road as housing and mixed use conversions. Local brews are crafted and consumed in the area,  Union Brewery is slated for a grand opening of their new facility in the near future.
The two stone houses before additions were demolished
(Clipper Road looking north)

Sleepy Woodberry had already become a destination when Bill Struever  brought back the burnt Clipper Mill complex with a condo building roughly in the shape of the destruoyed main mill building and a range of very cool adaptations of historic industrial buildings into such destinations as Guiterrez metal studios, Woodberry Kitchen, and apartments inserted into an industrial hall without a roof in which a huge overhead crane still hovers over top. (The Assembly Building). A sunken pool on its side exudes the cool ruin-chique that since has become even more fashionable.
Screenshot of PI.KL Studio rendering looking north

This is a long introduction to what was presented by the two partners of PI.KL Studio,  Pavlina Ilieva and Kuopao Lian on Wednesday morning.  But it explains why start-up developer and investor Chris Mfume had his eyes set on the non-descript parcels. It also describes the trajectory that many of the historic structures took before: Forlorn and forgotten until an investor came along.  The circuitous history also explains why Mfume, young and maybe not as versed in the mill history as Himmelrich and Tufaro, apparently underestimated how explosive it could become to simply raze the 160 year old mill houses, even if early on the community was reportedly unconcerned. The context also explains why the the words "transit oriented development" (or TOD), bicyle storage, walk access to the light rail station,  compatibility and "urban code" as well as community permeated the presentation to UDAAP. There was also an empahsis on details such as noting that the old houses had their back turned to the street, that the residences across the street where actually 7-8' elevated above the street level and how far the new building was sunk into the ground.
Development context: TOD zone (Screenshot of PI.KL slide)

"We are now studying up [on the history]" Mfume told me after the UDAAP meeting today. Its hard to blame the man, because unlike the neatly kept houses north of Clipper Road, the buildings south of it have long been non-residential in their use and where both nearly swallowed up by additions.

The outcry and the rude accusations that came with it also bruised architect Pavlina Illieva. But  the push-back already caused a shift in the team's approach. From simply re-using the recovered stone blocks in the facade, the team pivoted to integrating the two houses, at least in part, into the 60' tall contemporary apartment building. The result is a stark contrast between modern and 160 years old, between low houses on the north and a tall slender building on the south of narrow Clipper Road, a design approach that Americans still need to get used to, but which is common in Europe, where old stuff is frequently juxtaposed with ultramodern interventions even in historic districts.

The new UDAAP review team was initially a bit shell-shocked by having to evaluate the design of their own (recused) chair. The reviewers were generally positive and it sounded as if out of conviction and not out of reverence. Payam Ostovar, a landscape architect from DC said he was "excited" and that how the old structures were pulled into the building was "really fantastic". He, part of the demographic of young urbanites for which these apartments are obviously designed, suggested that there should be a rooftop amenity for the new residents to orient themselves. Osborne Anthony, an architect at AECOM in Baltimore, was more careful in his judgement, calling the stone houses important "sentinels" of the past, worth protecting and keeping around. He made several suggestions about the facade detailing and window rhythm and placement which the two design architects welcomed with head nodding. Planning Director Stosur noted how the preserved facades looked stunted compared to the residences across the street and suggested the use of porch elements to make a reference to the residences. More nodding.
Is it preservation? Historic walls included

In an e-mail to councilman Pinkett and community members, Stosur clarified on Wednesday that his hands are tied when it comes to demanding preservation:
Currently, there are no protections on these buildings preventing them from being demolished. Such protection comes only with designation as a local historic landmark or local historic district.  Our department recognizes the historic significance of the mill village in Woodberry and did engage with the Woodberry community in the early 2000s in an attempt to establish a local historic district.  However, at that time, the community was not prepared to move forward with the designation process, which requires an extensive outreach and education effort, as well as adoption of a City Council Ordinance. Our preservation staff remains available to engage again with the community to explore the local designation option. (Planning Director Stosur)
Existing and potential new with heights (ValStone Development)
Meanwhile, ValStone development got caught in the refreshed  community sensibilities when they presented their ideas for the much larger development of the remaining parcels inside the Clipper Mill planned unit development (PUD) on Tuesday.  Those parcels were left behind when Bill Struever ran out of steam in the wake of the financial crisis. Caroline Paff says that the new buildings have no designs yet. For the old Clipper Mill PUD, community concerns center less on historic preservation and on the old stand-bys of traffic and parking instead.  Anyone who has tried to find a parking space to eat at Woodberry kitchen or attend an event knows that parking is already difficult, and easily could become more so, especially if the old "Tractor Building" (which currently serves as a makeshift parking garage) would be redeveloped. The fully executed additional development could add up to 350 units in various phases. The Tractor Building would be part of the initial phase. Conservatively calculated the new units could add as many as 140 trips during the afternoon "peak time", however it is expected that there would be a 25% transit "TOD decrease" by virtue of the nearby light rail line. Depending on the build-out, calculated parking demand would exceed the supply by 20 or 12 spaces. Not included in the analysis is that parking needs will most likely be drastically reduced by an increase in fleet based ride sharing in urban areas.
Added development on the Clipper Mill PUD (ValStone Development)

Unlike the past carefully grafted insertion of  apartments into the Assembly Building building to the east of the Tractor Building, the developer apparently plans to add several levels on top of the Tractor Building, significantly altering the appearance of the industrial hall with its shed skylights. A preservation discussion may be in the offing for this proposal.

42 slides address concerns about how much development, how much traffic, and how much stormwater were assembled by the consultant team of Colbert, Matz and Rosenfelt (civil engineering), Green Street Environmental, Marren Architects and Lenhart Traffic. 

There will be limited space for surface water treatment and about 50% of "new" stormwater will probably have to be managed with an underground facility which will replace an existing storage facility which was placed before the new, stricter regulations which require management of 2, 10 and 100 year storms.

Flooding is certainly an issue in the Jones Falls Valley, but that the proposed developments would help to wash the old mills away any time soon is not likely. They will, however will give more people a chance to enjoy urban living, transit and enjoy the wonderful Jones Falls trail and the beautiful Druid Park. If the historic character of Woodberry can be properly preserved in the process, one could call it a success story.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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