Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Woodberry: New development incompatible with preservation?

After about 25 years of mostly talk the Jones Falls valley has finally become a hotbed for development. With it come the difficulties.
While all the development is good for Baltimore's under-performing light rail line and could be called transit oriented development not everyone already living in Woodberry is thrilled. The community was on pins and needles when Valstone Partners, a development and private equity investment firm with offices in Michigan and Baltimore proposed a masterplan for 17.4 acres they control in the Clipper Mill area planning for mixed use redevelopment. Discussions about the project got off  on the wrong foot with "some initial missteps in engaging the community" , as councilman Pinkett put it. When he pushed the reset button in a packed April 2 community meeting anxiety in the community was already heightened as Ethan McLeod reported in the Baltimore Fishbowl.
3508 Clipper Mill duplex as listed on Zillow

Another proposal brought tension to a fever pitch but only after it was amplified in the headlines of Baltimore's online alternative media which tend up to pick news ahead of the SUN by checking Facebook posts. This time it was the possible demolition of two historic stone-houses at 3511 and 3523 Clipper Mill Road proposed by CLD Partners. This development start-up headed by Chris Mfume had acquired the duplex buildings in March of this year for $440,000, a price that indicates that the structures are in good condition. 
CLD PARTNERS was founded with the intent to acquire and develop quality properties throughout Baltimore City and surrounding areas, taking advantage of unique opportunities while realizing the highest risk adjusted return performance for our investors. Through innovation and discipline, our goal is to offer a full-service product, adding value and expertise in all aspects including development, design and strategy. The foundations of our work stems from a deep understanding of the market as well as the communities in which we invest. We enjoy collaborating with neighborhood stakeholders to deliver a thoughtful product that meets both community and investment goals (CLD website)
Woodberry LRT station: TOD?
There is no question that those stone-house duplexes are the signature architecture of Woodberry and that they have strong historic significance. Constructed after 1840 of "semi-coursed gneiss stone" (National Register of Historic Places documentation) they form an ensemble of similar structures that is rare even in history rich Baltimore.
3511/23 Clipper Rd with City inspectors (SUN)

But someone " taking advantage of unique opportunities while realizing the highest risk adjusted return performance for our investors" will find that the about 160 years old structures have no protection whatsoever, even if even the developer's architect would admit that "absolutely are the ey worth to be preserved".  But Woodberry residents refused to declare the area a local historic district under CHAP, the only way (other than individual landmark designation) to provide historic protection. Woodberry is listed on the National Register  of historic places, but many fail to see that this listing provides only carrots (tax credits if so desired) but no sticks (unless one wants to use the incentives).

Instead of the two houses the developer wants to erect an apartment building with 60-80 micro-units, according to the SUN. There is some confusion whether demolition is or even was a foregone conclusion. "Absolutely not", says the architect, Pavilina Ilieva but stating at the same time that "every study indicated that demolition was the most practical and cost effective" way to proceed with apartments. Whatever the exact cause, the houses have now a reprieve. The project will be reviewed by Baltimore's Design Review Panel (UDAAP) this Thursday and the developer postponed further action until after a community meeting on June 19.
Clipper Rd, with London Fog tower in background (Brew)

An interesting twist in the matter comes from the fact that the architect for the new apartments is PI.KL Studio headed by the same Pavlina Ilieva who was recently appointed as new chair of UDAAP.  Past incarnations of the City design review panel tried to avoid such conflicts by appointing retired design professionals or those from other places who had no work here. Ms Ilieva assured me that her firm has Baltimore and the community at heart. Indeed, her past action on UDARPcan give the community some assurance that her firm wouldn't proffer some rogue design and in one way or another Woodberry's prevailing historic architecture would be reflected and not entirely negated or overlooked.

Ms Ilieva told me forthis article that "the design is very much in the beginning". She recalled that the initial meeting with community members did not indicate any concern regarding the possibility of demolition announced by the developer. Instead of concerns about preservation the developer was asked to address blight, Ms Ilieva remembered. She complained about "misinformation" and attributed it to social media and incorrect reporting such as demolition without a permit (apparently the only items that were demolished were covered by a limited demo permit). Ms. Ilieva was not at liberty to describe any of the designs that will be presented to UDAAP or the community meeting scheduled for June 19 but allowed that there are "alternatives" to a complete demolition and that "complete demolition was not a done deal".
Rescued structures blended into redevelopment: Clipper Mill (CBH Architects)

The stark contrast by what any urban designer or historian would typically consider the right course and what can be done "by right" points once again to a number of systemic problems which surface time and again in Baltimore:
  • Historic structures have no protection at all unless they are in a designated local historic CHAP district which controls exterior, interior and a lot of details in between accroding to the strict standards of the Secretary of the Interior.
  • The official system of planning and regulations based on zoning, comprehensive plans, small area plans and various types of masterplans is slow, often outdated, too course and frequently overrun by the pace of development even in a shrinking city such as Baltimore. This gives developers a pretty wide berth for "development by right". As a result a large burden is placed on the few stop-gaps the community perceives to have, regardless whether those bodies were designed for that purpose or not. Affected are chiefly CHAP and UDAAP whereby the latter is soley advisory.
  • Community participation is now overlaid by community chatter and rumors on social media which can quickly move projects into adversarial trenches even before a constructive dialogue has begun. This, in turn can potentially poison the dialogue even in cases when the developers may be well meaning  and highly qualified or where investment is desirable.
The stone houses are no dumps: Listing photo for 3508 Clipper
The next two weeks with the UDAAP review this Thursday and the upcoming community meeting next week will show if constructive dialogue about this historic duplex is still be possible. Whether  the divisions and contradictions between development and historic preservation can be overcome. The successful redevelopment of the original Clipper Mill area could be a model. It is widely considered a good blend between the old and the new and credited with transforming Woodberry from a sleepy village inside the city into a desirable destination in Baltimore. A journey which makes the light rail stop much more meaningful but is certainly not welcomed by everyone.

Even better: If  the repeated evidence that history is not truly protected in Baltimore could lead to a middle path between no protection at all and full CHAP protection in which each window mullion is subject to review.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Valstone masterplan

Baltimore Brew: For at least two weeks, stone houses in Woodberry are saved from the wrecking ball

Baltimore Brew: In Woodberry, will historic stone houses come down for "hipster flats"?

Baltimore Fishbowl: Redevelopment plans for Clipper Mill sow angst in Woodberry

National Register District registration

Union Mill, now teacher housing

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