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Residents oppose town house development on historic site in Hampden

PropertySalesBusinessArtMaryland Historical Trust

A developer's plan to turn a historic house into townhouses and apartments is sparking consternation among residents, who say their streets are already overly dense and congested.

General contractor John Brooks wants to convert the old Crittenton Home for Girls into 11 apartments at 3110 Crittenton Place, one block west of Chestnut Avenue.

Brooks also proposes to raze a more modern dormitory building on the 2.5-acre property and build 19 townhouses with garages. Six townhouses would face Elm Avenue; 13 would front West 32nd Street.

The deteriorating house was built in 1845, overlooking Mount Vernon Mills — now Mill Centre, a complex of 90 artist studios and other businesses — and was originally the home of David Carroll, the mill owner.

The site in 1925 became the Florence Crittenton Home for Girls, part of the Florence Crittenton Mission, a network of 76 homes in cities nationwide and internationally for prostitutes and unwed pregnant women. Over the years, several dormitory buildings were added.

The Florence Crittenton Home for Girls later became Florence Crittenton Services. It was closed by the state in 2010, according to a report by city planners.

Brooks, of Sparks, is buying the Hampden property from its owner, Hamilton Bank. He said the house is under contract.

"It's a really cool property. It's a fantastic property for a small urban development," he said.

Baltimore City zoning allows for more than 100 residential units, said Tim Hearn, CEO of the Baltimore office of Colliers International, the broker for the sale of the property.

However, a Maryland Historical Trust easement prohibits new construction on the property — and that's the way most residents in the Brick Hill section of southern Hampden want to keep it. They said the site, a bucolic, tree-shaded campus should be preserved as much as possible.

"That prohibition would have to be amended out of the easement," Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said. She said most residents at recent meetings about the plan oppose it.

Hearn said the city Planning Department has taken the position that the original house should only be for a single-family home.

The most recent community meeting was April 27, when Brooks presented updated plans — scaled back from his original plan which called for 38 townhouses with garages and 11 condominiums.

The City Council on May 23 is scheduled to decide whether to add the historic house to the city's official landmarks list. It is already on a special city list of preservation-worthy properties.

Although the trust has given its conceptual approval of Brooks' plans, Clarke and many residents fear the effect on traffic and parking in a section that they say already has a glut of townhouses, warehouses, and commercial businesses, plus a book bindery; a machine shop; and Mill No. 1, a soon-to-open mixed-use development.

But Brooks argued, "The historic structure needs a lot of work, and the way you pay for that is you build townhouses."

The city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation has not reviewed Brooks' proposal, because Brooks has not submitted an application, said Kathleen Kotarba, CHAP's executive director.

"Where we are is completing the landmark designation process," Kotarba said.

Clarke said there's no animosity toward Brooks, and she thinks his new plan is preferable to the first one.

"He's a very nice man," Clarke said. "But the people in this community are very concerned about traffic and parking. It wasn't so much negative about this man and his proposal. We really want to keep the site the way it is."

"The Crittenton site doesn't exist in a vacuum," said Sharon Price, who lives on Elm Avenue and whose picturesque house, The Elm, is a venue for meetings, weddings and other events.

"We're bounded by everything," Price said.

To the north is 32nd Street, with 29 existing townhouses. There's not enough parking on 32nd, a one way street northbound, she said.

To the south is Mill Road, a small street with no sidewalks, and the Mill Centre, she said.

To the east, on Crittenton Street, are another 22 townhouses, and her house, which is the only residential property in the Brick Hill stretch of Elm Avenue, she said.

Directly across from the development site are the machine shop and book bindery, both there for decades and both with loading docks for delivery trucks that roll in early in the morning, Price said.

The six townhouses that Brooks wants to build fronting Elm Avenue would face the machine shop and the bindery with its tall chimney, she said.

Price counts 129 businesses and 145 residences in the two-block area around the historic site, and thinks Brooks' project would compound an already bad traffic and parking problem.

"I don't see this project succeeding," said Price, who serves on a community steering committee. "I just don't see this as a good fit."

"I understand the developer's perspective, but if you do too much density, you change the way of life in this neighborhood," said Shawn McRaney, an artist and museum exhibits specialist who can see the site from his kitchen window. He too serves on the steering committee of residents and business owners.

Bert Smith, a retired graphics design professor at the University of Baltimore, who lives in the 3200 block of Chestnut Avenue, said he favors "adaptive reuse" of the Crittenton site, much as Mount Vernon Mills was converted to Mill Centre without new construction.

"Save the buildings and make them viable," Smith said.

"We would like something to become of it, but not the idea of three-story townhouses," said 32nd Street resident Danny Camac.

Price said she would like the Maryland Historical Trust to hold public meetings about the easement, so that residents can have their say.

City landmark designation by the city would give the trust "a trigger to reach out to the community," she said.

But Brooks argued, "It's really more up to CHAP and the Maryland Historical Trust than it is to me or the residents."

Ken Gelbard, owner and manager of the Mill Centre, said he supports Brooks' plan for the property, if only because he fears that the site would otherwise continue to sit abandoned and neglected.

"I'm definitely in the minority. My concern is that if we don't go with some plan like that, some bottom-feeder will buy it, the bank will want to get rid of it and the property will deteriorate further," he said.

Ideally, Gelbard said, "I support the state making it into a park, but that ain't going to happen."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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