Baltimore City's zoning board sent a developer back to the drawing board March 25, denying setback variances for proposed townhouses on the site of a former home for unwed mothers in Hampden.
The Municipal Zoning and Appeals Board voted 3-0 not to grant the variances to developer John Brooks, who wants to raze a more modern dormitory next to the historic, Civil War-era Florence Crittenton Home and build 19 townhouses on the dorm site. Brooks also wants to convert the house itself into 11 apartments.
Brooks was seeking the board's approval to subdivide the existing lot into 20 lots and build 19 three-story, attached townhouses with decks and lower-level parking garages, while using the two-story historic building, known as Crittenton Mansion, as a multi-family dwelling.
Brooks' land-use consultant, Al Barry said he still thinks Brooks can build the $7 million project on the idyllic, 2.5-acre site on Crittenton Place, near 32nd Street and Chestnut Avenue. Barry said he and Brooks now must decide whether to build with the existing setbacks or redesign the project and seek new variances.
The ruling appeared to take everyone involved by surprise.
"We won," crowed City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has championed efforts by area residents to force Brooks to scale down the project. Twelve immediate neighbors and business owners attended the meeting, and four of them testified that the project as planned would be too dense and noisy for the isolated neighborhood of narrow streets and partly industrial use, including a bindery and a machine shop.
"I'm complaining about true danger to the neighborhood," said Sharon Price, who lives in The Elm, a house across the street that doubles as a public meeting space. She said fire trucks and other emergency vehicles would have trouble navigating the streets.
Resident Michael Cook accused Brooks of using the variances as a way to make the townhouses as big as possible to increase their value. But Barry, the consultant, said neighbors were opposing the variance request as a proxy in their fight against a project they didn't want to begin with.
Residents also said parking is already at a premium in the area, and that the townhouses would compound the problem. Barry said building the townhouses with the current setbacks would exacerbate parking problems.
Barry told the board that the Maryland Historical Trust has already given its blessing to the development, and that his sense is that the city Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation would "likely" approve the project next month.
Earlier this month, Hamilton Bank sold the property, 3110 Crittenton Place, to Brooks for $850,000, according to the broker, Colliers International.
Last June, Clarke and residents lobbied the Maryland Historical Trust to keep in place an easement that would prohibit new construction on the 2.5-acre site, but the trust's 15-member board voted unanimously to waive the prohibition and allow the construction of 19 townhouses, contingent on the renovation of the historic stone house and the project design being in character with the neighborhood.
In September, Clarke and residents, meeting as the Crittenton Neighbors Steering Committee, asked Brooks at a meeting at The Elm to renovate Crittenton House before starting townhouse construction. They also asked Brooks to minimize the footprint and height of the townhouses, so as not exceed the Crittenton dorm building. That would limit the townhouses to two stories and eliminate seven of the proposed townhouses.
Brooks and Barry said no, noting that they had not yet brought any plans to the city. Brooks also declined a request by neighbors to meet via Skype with his investor in the project, Hugh Runoff, a doctor, biotech entrepreneur and friend of Brooks. Many residents questioned whether Brooks had the financial backing to build the project, including townhouses that he said would sell for around $350,000.
Brooks at the time did agree to establish a homeowners' association.
Several residents stressed to the zoning board March 25 that they are not against development of the property because they realize that something has to be done there. They said they just want it to be downsized and in keeping with the character of the neighborhood,
Clarke told the board, "We didn't want development. We faced up to it."