Baltimore's Jones Falls Valley feels the pressure of residential development

The brick townhomes, striped with blue and cream cement panels, rise over the dead end of Redfern Avenue in the Medfield neighborhood of Baltimore.

The 15-home development, offering contemporary design with a nod to the area’s industrial past, is the kind of place Luke Yorke-Hart said he would like to live.

That’s why he built it.

When the South African developer married a Baltimorean, they went looking for a house in the city.

“We went into an apartment outside of Hampden and fell in love with the area,” said Yorke-Hart, the CEO of Gnu Homes. “We realized everyone wants to live here, but some couldn’t find a new house with an open floor plan and all the amenities of a modern home.

“This is how we started the business.”

Developers are snapping up empty lots and outdated factories, mills and warehouses throughout the Jones Falls Valley to build new homes. Neighborhoods such as Hampden, Remington, Woodberry, Medfield and Mount Washington are luring new residents with historical charm, convenience and seclusion from downtown Baltimore.

But as more projects emerge, longtime residents and business owners are looking for ways to maintain the character that drew them to the valley in the first place. Some are talking of creating a master plan to guide the redevelopment.

Dr. Angelo Leto Barone, a 36-year-old surgical resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital, lives in the Clipper Mill apartments in Woodberry.

“It’s easy to make a place overcrowded by packing people into an area without expanding on businesses that enrich the area and enrich the flavor,” he said. “If the area becomes too crowded without any additional services, people will tend to not want to be there because it’s not going to be worth it.”

ValStone Partners has proposed as many as 336 new apartments at Clipper Mill. Across Clipper Road, another developer plans an apartment building with up to 80 studio units. About a mile to the south, the adapted Fox buildings in Hampden will house 94 apartments and artist studios. And smaller developments, such as Gnu Homes’ Redfern Row in Medfield and Hoes Heights, are filling in the gaps.

The new projects follow the Union Collective craft manufacturing hub on 41st Street, townhouses on Cairnes Lane and Crittendon Place, and mixed-use projects at Mill No. 1 and White Hall Mill.

The housing market around the Jones Falls Valley is among Baltimore’s strongest, city officials say, and developers are catching on.

“They’re in a hot market,” city planning director Tom Stosur said. “It’s been a sleepy place for a lot of the last 50 years.”

The valley has drawn young people and retirees with its proximity to anchor institutions, vast green space, historic structures and rents that are cheaper than those in downtown. Interstate 83 and Light Rail both run down the valley floor, offering ready access to jobs downtown.

Before Leto Barone moved to the Millrace condos in 2014, he visited Clipper Mill with friends. He said the lush enclave has a charm that’s hard to find elsewhere in the city.

“It was the magic of the place,” he said. “And when I got there I really got that feeling — like being in the city but feeling like you’re outside of the city in a very desirable place.”

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke represents part of the valley. She said she’s been pleased to see so much development in the region, and praised projects such as the creative reuse of the Fox Building.

“We’re glad to be the subject of so much attention, especially those projects which preserve some of the buildings in the legacy,” she said. “We just don’t want to overcrowd what is such a magnetic and attractive neighborhood.”

She urged the protection of the region’s green space.

“Don’t destroy with overdevelopment what attracted you in the first place,” she said.

Neighbors have pushed back against some projects. Advocates for a master plan say it could help residents see beyond individual projects to take in a long-term vision for the area.

Former city planner Al Barry worked on a master plan for the valley in 2000. It urged the city and developers to protect the local historic character, repurpose unused buildings and preserve the environment.

The plan was not adopted by the city. But Barry said development since then has largely followed its recommendations.

Sandy Sparks was involved in the 2000 master plan. She said it needs to be completely redrawn, largely to address the effects of flooding on the region.

“There are so many projects popping up and storms are becoming more predictable and causing more havoc,” she said. “The old plans are no longer even relevant just because of the impacts of newer storms.”

Sparks helped form Friends of Stony Run, a tributary of the Jones Falls, five years ago. The group helped craft a master plan for Roland Park, and now wants to organize a similar association this summer to support planning in the Jones Falls Valley.

“We want as many stakeholders involved as possible,” she said. “It’s very important to have broad perspective. By involving as many interests as possible you end up with the support you need to move ahead. It’s a strength, a voice you can’t deny.”

She said a unified effort — rather than siloed groups working on narrow neighborhoods — would “strengthen the well-being of the Jones Falls Valley for the long haul.”

In 2000, vacancies pocked Hampden’s now-bustling 36th Street. But the Avenue rebounded as merchants began serving the region beyond the neighborhood. Cafe Hon and others drew people to Hampden, and more entrepreneurs bought into the neighborhood’s potential.

Younger residents began moving in, replacing some of the elderly population and renovating tired rowhouses.

Benn Ray has owned Atomic Books for 18 years. He’s president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.

“One thing that developers are failing to recognize now about the appeal of the neighborhood is that it was affordable,” he said. “So when they come in and buy warehouses and mills and convert them to high-dollar spaces, they are doing the opposite of what people move here for. Artists and others moved here for apartments and gallery space that was affordable.”

Bill Struever, who helped lead the redevelopment of Clipper Mill in the mid-2000s, tried to create low-cost spaces for artists using historic tax credits to supplement rents. Two artisan groups, Gutierrez Studios and Corradetti Glass Blowing Studio & Gallery, remain.

Woodberry Kitchen, which opened in 2007, is another original tenant of Struever’s redevelopment.

“I loved the complex. Back then it felt a little more like the Wild West,” Woodberry Kitchen owner Spike Gjerde said. “We were working on it and a lot of people thought we were crazy. It wasn’t easy to find — there wasn’t anything else. It wasn’t like it depended on traffic.”

The owners of other restaurateurs and breweries, such as Birroteca, La Cuchara and Union Craft Brewing Co., took notice of the area’s potential and opened nearby.

“Your first little gut reaction is, ‘Hey, this is our little corner of the city,’” Gjerde said. “In the time since Woodberry [Kitchen] opened, it made a lot more sense to folks looking at it to open something there.”

Business owners say they support development, but they want to see the city improve infrastructure to support new people and projects.

“I’m in favor of density,” Ray said. “But the developments need to be market-rate and handled in a smart way. I don’t see anyone addressing infrastructure, like Clipper Mill traffic.”

The city planning department in January overhauled guidelines for community groups that want to create master plans.

“We want people to dream, but we want people to have that dream kind of like grounded in some reality,” said K. Reni Lawal, a city planner. ”A lot of it also depends on if there’s a champion, a cheerleader or a staff organization who can kind of push these plans forward.”

Master plans are not enforceable unless their provisions are adopted by the city, but plans forged by community groups can inform city policy and codes.

A long-term plan for the Jones Falls Valley would set parameters for stakeholders’ desires and help communities work toward sustainable developments. But the process can take years, leaving the possibility of clashes between neighbors and developers in the meantime.

Even Yorke-Hart’s comparatively small projects drew protests from a vocal minority.

He called creating a master plan “a very complex problem with a lot of stakeholders.”

“Getting people to agree on a long-term plan is difficult,” he said. “But planning not just for development but for infrastructure is critical. A master plan takes the guessing out of the game. A good one reflects demand and it needs to reflect economic reality.

“A master plan is also the place to object. When a project is zoned and underway, it’s too late.”

The lack of a master plan doesn’t prevent communities from negotiating with developers. As Washington Place Equities refashioned The Fox Building, some residents voiced concerns about parking and maintaining the area’s historic and artistic nature.

The developer made sure there was on-site parking, added 20 ground-floor studios for artists and is abiding by strict historic requirements.

“We didn’t walk into this thinking artist studios were something we wanted to do,” said Dominic Wiker, vice president and development director for Washington Place Equities. “We were striving to work with the folks in the community. We had a healthy give and take. It was one of the things they wanted.”

All but one of The Fox Building’s first 26 apartments completed this month are leased.

Although more will likely be completed before a master plan for the valley can be finalized, advocates say it’s not too late to lay out a vision for the region’s future.

“At the end of the day we build because there is demand for it, and that’s a good thing,” Yorke-Hart said. “The better you can plan from the top down, the better it is for a long-term solution.”

smeehan@baltsun.com

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Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Luke Yorke-Hart’s last name and the name of the Corradetti Glass Blowing Studio & Gallery. The Sun regrets the errors.
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