The sky was overcast above the flood-prone Meadow Mill business complex on June 16.
Evelyn "B.G." Purcell, owner of the caramel store Mouth Party in Meadow Mill, pointed out two large tree limbs that had worked their way downstream in the nearby Jones Falls, under Interstate 83. She admitted she gets nervous now whenever it looks like rain — and especially when she sees flash flood warnings.
"I do stress about it," she said.
Purcell, nicknamed B.G. for Baby Girl, is one of many retailers, property owners and developers along the Jones Falls from Woodberry to Mount Washington who fret over potential flooding at this time of year, and with good reason. It has been a year since Mouth Party reopened after a major flood that sent 5 feet of water streaming into the 3,200-square foot store.
Meadow Mill, an idyllic-looking site across a wooden bridge off Clipper Mill Road, was hard hit by the storm on April 30, 2014, and many of its ground-level stores that front the Jones Falls, such as Mouth Party, Nepenthe Homebrew, the Press Box, Stone Mill Bakery and the Potter's Guild of Baltimore, spent weeks or months mopping up and replacing waterlogged inventory, shelving, carpeting and equipment.
"This was just a disaster," Purcell said.
"We had baguettes (from Stone Mill) literally floating in our back room," said Jill Antos, who co-owns Nepenthe Homebrew with her husband, Brian Arnold. They estimated they lost $30,000 of income and said they had to raise $20,000 beyond $50,000 of federal flood insurance money they received — eight months later, Arnold recalled with a grimace.
At the Press Box, a sports newspaper, the staff had to work in a temporary space upstairs — cramped and with no air conditioning — while their flooded offices were repaired and refurbished, said sales account manager Hugh Collie.
Flooding also damaged several businesses and office buildings in the Mount Washington Mill shopping center at Smith and Kelly avenues. The Joshua Tree, an eco-friendly clothing store, has since reopened. Owner Joshua Ross Brownstein declined to comment.
Attorney Hassan Barnes, who specializes in mediation services, said his office on the second floor of an office building in Mount Washington Mill didn't flood, but the building was so musty and moldy that he did mediation off-site for a month.
Charm City Cupcakes, which occupied a small former guard house on the site, is gone, succeeded in June by KoDee Cakes. There hasn't been any serious flooding lately, but KoDee cashier Nicole Ford said she wouldn't be surprised if there was.
"I've been here when there's rain," she said, describing how large puddles form at the door. "It's not pretty."
The April 30 flood was unusually bad, a fluke, say some tenants.
Barnes said he's not nervous about more flash flooding.
"If it reaches the second floor, it's time to call for an ark," he said.
But flooding is never far from the thoughts of merchants.
"It's a reality," Arnold said.
Flash flooding has become even more of a reality in recent years, as climate changes cause precipitation to fall faster in shorter durations of time, Baltimore City officials say.
In the next 30 years, the number of so-called tidal events in Baltimore is expected to rise from an average of 17 a year to an average of 227, said certified flood plain manager Kristin Baja, a climate and resilience planner in the city's Office of Sustainability. She cited a November 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The city is trying to take a proactive approach, to avoid catastrophic situations like superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina, Baja said.
"I have been going out to let (business owners) know a storm is coming, so they know to get ready," she said.
The city last year updated the flood plain section of its natural resources code and, following the state's lead in 2012, requires property owners seeking new construction permits to raise electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems by an extra foot of elevation.
The city can't regulate owners of existing properties unless they make substantial changes, but encourages them to retrofit their properties with flood doors and walls.
The city is applying to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a "community rating" that would help property owners in the flood plain to lower their rates for federally required flood insurance by 10 to 25 percent.
"There's a whole slew of regulations we can show FEMA that we meet or exceed," said city Planning Director Tom Stosur.
Part of that process is teaching property owners and businesses to take disaster preparedness steps to reduce damages, such as switching to metal shelving and not storing valuables in basements.
"Part of our work is public education," said Laurie Feinberg, assistant planning director.
The city bans new construction in regulatory "floodways," areas that city officials say are intended to flood, and strictly regulates changes to buildings already in the floodway. One such building is an old cotton mill at 3300 Clipper Mill Road that developer David Tufaro, of Terra Nova Ventures, is turning into a complex called Whitehall Mill, with 28 apartments, 20,000 square feet of office space and an 18,000-square-foot, Belvedere Square-style market. The building is located partly in the floodway, city officials say.
Stosur said Tufaro is seeking a variance to build the market on the lower level.
"We have been working with him for a few months, trying to come up with the right sweet spot that will enforce the flood plain code and allow him to do the mixed-use project he wants to do," Stosur said. "It presents a lot of challenges."
Tufaro said the building flooded last year and that he is doing flood-proofing, including the installation of flood shutters and special flood windows. He said he plans to open in 2016.
"It's the balance between preservation of historic buildings and protection measures," Tufaro said. "I am concerned and trying to deal with it."
The former Northwest Ice Rink in Mount Washington also sits in the floodway, limiting its potential uses, city officials say. The rink on Cottonworth Avenue has been vacant since it closed without advance notice in 2008. Steve Napp, who purchased it for $435,000 at a foreclosure auction in 2011, would not comment at the time, but was said to be trying to open a children's theater company. Napp could not be reached for comment for this article.
"That's another very challenging site," Stosur said. "Any investment in that property that qualifies as a substantial improvement will have to meet the flood plan/floodway requirements," which could be cost-prohibitive, he said.
Tufaro also owns and has flood-proofed Mill No. 1, a mixed-use complex of buildings at 3000 Falls Road, in the flood plain. That complex didn't flood in the 2014 storm, although water came up to the bottom of the concrete warehouse building there, he said.
"We got a pretty good test a year ago," Tufaro said. "Remember, these buildings have survived for 150 years."
Stosur said despite the dangers of flooding and the strict regulations, the lure for developers is to be on the water.
"Water is magic," he said.
But In the face of global climate changes, discussion of development in flood plains and floodways "is going to become an undeniable national issue," Stosur said.
Said Feinberg, "We need to deal with this as a nation."
Looking to the future
Meadow Mill and Mount Washington Mill, both located in the flood plain, are owned by Himmelrich Associates.
"We've done a lot of work at both properties," said Sam Himmelrich Jr. "We continue to increase our properties' resistance to flooding in a number of ways and to work with our tenants to understand efforts so that we can avoid future problems."
Several of his recent measures at Meadow Mill are drawing mixed reviews from tenants. One is to build 5-foot-tall cinder block walls on both sides of the entrances to several businesses, including Nepenthe Homebrew and Mouth Party, with special gates connecting the walls.
But Arnold and Antos, the co-owners of Nepenthe, and Purcell, of Mouth Party, said the gates are unwieldy to erect when a storm is coming and don't appear to seal properly. At Mouth Party, 22 sandbags lie against one of the new walls, just in case.
All three owners say they wish a tall wall could be constructed between the Jones Falls and Meadow Mill to slow flash flooding. They would also like to see the Jones Falls dredged, although Feinberg said that would not be in the city's purview.
Purcell has installed metal shelves and now uses a more sophisticated inventory system. She said she makes more such decisions with last year's storm and flooding in mind.
"In hindsight, it's taught me to do things a little differently," she said.
Purcell is more hopeful for the immediate future, saying, "I think we're in a better place."
But she's in the third year of a five-year lease at Meadow Mill, and when her lease expires, she might be in a different place. She said she worries not just for herself and her store, but for her father, who is a business partner, and for her investors and employees.
"I look forward to not feeling so antsy about it," she said. "We are definitely entertaining relocating our business."