After the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church was ravaged by a lightning-strike fire four years ago, the Hampden neighborhood was left with what appeared to be an unusable building.
But Mark Dent saw more than a burned-out shell of an old stone church. He saw the future home of Chesapeake Systems, the 25-person computer company he co-owns.
Still, the rebirth of the burned out church as a commercial building almost didn't happen. Dent's company spent months — and thousands of dollars — trying to work through the city's antiquated zoning law. As the process dragged on, he thought seriously about moving out of Baltimore, to an office park off Interstate 95.
The city hopes to avoid such near-misses with a far-reaching piece of legislation, "Transform Baltimore," that would replace the city's decades-old zoning law. The new law is designed to be more understandable, speed up the zoning process, and discourage ad hoc zoning layers that are being used to sidestep outmoded rules.
"We've missed out on opportunities for investment because of red tape," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who introduced the new zoning legislation to the City Council in October. The overhaul, promoting mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities, will help the city's population begin growing again, she said.
The new code is more focused on broadening the options for development. The Planning Department — which this week begins a series of public meetings on the proposed revisions — hopes it will allow vacant buildings such as the Hampden church to be reused more easily.
Dent is proud of the unique, historically reverent space he's created for Chesapeake Systems, which handles Macintosh computer systems for businesses from New York to Washington.
The main stained-glass window at the back of the church is a pixelated representation of the company's logo. Dent hopes to restore the organ to working order. And he is contemplating installing a roof deck, accessible from the remaining church tower stairwell.
"It's really nice to have a building with character," said employee Zeb Drinkwater. He and his colleagues have individual work stations in the renovated church basement. "Showing up at a place with white cubicle walls, it can be soul-crushing."
The renovated space is a far cry from the eyesore the abandoned church had become. Dent recalls that the stained glass was boarded up, the grass was overgrown and a construction fence surrounded the lot at the corner of West 33rd Street and Chestnut Avenue, in the midst of Hampden rowhouses.
"We were at a point where we wanted to own something and I saw it sitting here," Dent said. Before moving in over July 4th weekend last year, Chesapeake Systems spent the prior 15 years in the nearby Mill Centre. "I knew all of the employees were OK with it because we were already in the area."
Getting the OK from the city was not as simple. The zoning process dragged on for 10 months and cost Chesapeake Systems thousands of dollars in fees to a consultant who helped the company navigate it.
"How much time and energy did I put into it? How much emotional stress did it cause?" Dent said.
On display in Chesapeake System's office, as a reminder of the work needed to get into the space, is a timeline that marks each major event in the rezoning. It is surrounded by 10 other frames filled with documents and photos related to the company's trying months in the zoning maze, which required Councilwoman Belinda Conaway to introduce legislation specific to the property.
The Planning Commission, on the recommendation of the Planning Department, disapproved of the legislation. Under Maryland law, the church did not qualify for rezoning because its current classification was not a mistake nor had the character of the neighborhood changed, according to the department's legislative analysis.
"I don't still quite understand why they approved it," Dent said of the City Council, which permitted the zoning change — in spite of the Planning Commission's assessment that it was illegal (the city's Law Department came to the opposite conclusion). Although it worked out in the end, the process soured Dent on the city's zoning regulations, which he sees as standing in the way of Baltimore's ability to hold on to prospering companies.
"I live in the county. Most of my employees live in the county," Dent said, adding that it would have been easier to get to clients if Chesapeake Systems were near a highway.
The city's zoning code was developed by a commission appointed in 1957, according to reports in The Baltimore Sun. It was eventually introduced to the City Council in 1968 and approved in 1971. It followed a suburban model, separating commercial and residential uses.
This time around, the city began rethinking the zoning code in 2008, holding public meetings to discuss what works and what doesn't, according to Tom Stosur, the city's planning director.
The next year Camiros Ltd., a Chicago-based planning consultant, was hired to work with officials to develop zones that will meet the city's current needs. Public comment, drafting and redrafting of the 343-page proposed law continued until it was introduced to the council.