The announcement this fall that a prominent Baltimore developer plans to remake the Pepsi distribution center in Hampden with a supermarket, apartments and offices was just the first sign of another wave of development in the Jones Falls Valley that promises to push residential and commercial use.
The projects, which are in various stages of development, could add more than 1,000 new housing units to Hampden, Medfield, Woodberry and Hoes Heights in coming years — a more than 10 percent increase in an area with about 8,300 households in the last census count.
On Buena Vista Avenue near Union Mill, observers can glimpse the scope of the potential changes, taking in the Pepsi plant, the Schenuit Rubber smokestack — under contract to new owners with an eye to conversion — and looking northwest and south, the pockets of industrial or vacant land with smaller projects.
The surge of proposals comes as several large industrial employers, including Hedwin and Pepsi, prepare to leave the city, and it builds on changes already occurring in the neighborhoods surrounding the Jones Falls, where new, often higher-income households are replacing longtime residents and Hampden's traditional commercial district along 36th Street, known as the Avenue, is spilling onto surrounding streets.
"It's a lot," said Shannon Dawkins Wrenn, president of the Hampden Community Council, which is tracking about a dozen new projects in the area. "It's kind of overwhelming."
The proposals — some new, some in the works since before the recession — continue a trend that started in the 1990s, as the conversion of Meadow Mill began a transition from factories to upscale coffeehouses and lofts. They have been driven by an improving economy, low interest rates and the millennial generation's desire for urban living, as well as jockeying for approvals before the city finishes rewriting its zoning code.
"There's pent-up demand for it," said Mitch Gold of Gold & Co., who won permission in September to subdivide an industrial lot on Buena Vista Avenue to build 18 townhouses on land now covered with trees and undergrowth. "People want to live in Hampden, and there hasn't been very much new product in the market. There are a lot of new apartments, but there aren't very many properties to buy."
Buildings underway include large, mixed-use developments such as Whitehall Mill and the Rotunda, expected to open next year, as well as smaller, scattered development.
As new proposals appear, or older ones are resurrected, they are generating a backlash among residents worried that the area will become a victim of its own success, its narrow streets overwhelmed with cars and other infrastructure needs neglected as pricey homes and larger corporate businesses dilute the neighborhood's offbeat character
"Sometimes I say, when I think a project's too dense, that although we're trying to get 10,000 new families in Baltimore, do they really all have to fit into Hampden? Because it feels like that," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes part of the neighborhood. "You don't want to ruin the very environment that is so welcoming by overbuilding."
Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association and co-owner of Atomic Books, said if the apartments and homes fill, he expects them to bring new customers to the Avenue, even if some local businesses face more competition from new stores.
But more needs to be done to address environmental and infrastructure needs as the new projects get off the ground, he said.
"It's adding density to the neighborhood, and from a business owner's perspective, I think that's a good thing," he said. "But the infrastructure has to be addressed, and I don't think anybody wants to talk about that."
The new proposals include:
•The Pepsi site at 1650 Union Ave., which a Himmelrich Associates affiliate purchased for $6.75 million last month. The firm wants to redevelop it with a 75,000-square-foot grocer, hundreds of apartments and four smaller, three- to four-story buildings with ground-floor retail and offices, said Al Barry of AB Associates, which is shepherding the project. Himmelrich, which also developed Meadow Mill and the Mount Washington Mill, is considering at least 300 apartments, according to neighborhood groups.
•1600 Roland Heights Ave., part of the Hedwin complex, which Stonewall Capital has under contract and where it has proposed 250 apartments or 140 townhouses. The Sparks developer, also represented by Barry, recently won permission to build 29 new townhouses on Cairnes Lane in Hampden.
•3100-3200 Falls Cliff Road, which manufacturer Simpson Strong-Tie plans to vacate next year. Edye Fox Abrams, whose family sold Fox Industries to Simpson in 2011, said she and partners hope to convert the roughly 100,000-square-foot building into as many as 80 apartments while retaining some of the light-industrial tenants.
•Four industrial properties, including the Schenuit factory in Clipper Mill Industrial Park, directly across the Jones Falls from the Pepsi plant, recently went under contract with Remington Properties LLC. Principals in the firm said they expect to see the Clipper Mill area eventually transition to nonindustrial use, starting with the long-vacant, 150,000-square-foot former rubber plant.
•Florist distribution parcels around 2001 W. Cold Spring Lane, where Kann Aquity LLC President Dan Galluzzo expects to start demolition and construction next year on a long-planned, $26 million project with as many as 270 market-rate apartments, an 80,000-square-foot office building and about 15,000 square feet of retail space.
•In Hampden, Medfield and Hoes Heights, at least three developers have approached neighborhood groups about smaller residential projects on Buena Vista, Redfern and Hickory avenues, which would add about 75 new rowhouses to the area.
In some ways, the proposals are a long time coming, anticipated by a plan for the Jones Falls Valley put together by Barry, developer C. William Struever and others in 2000. The goal was to put the area on the map and encourage developers, the city and others to invest, rehabilitating industrial properties, improving infrastructure and adopting environmental measures that would increase access to the Jones Falls waterway — never mind the hum of Interstate 83 above.
Some ideas introduced then have moved forward, including bike paths, which link the area to Cylburn Arboretum. But other suggestions for public improvements, such as making the 41st Street bridge more pedestrian-friendly or redeveloping a Department of Public Works property on Falls Road, have gone unfulfilled.
Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, said the group hopes the redevelopment will be accompanied by improvements to sewers and water management systems that routinely overflow.
But even getting something as simple as a new crosswalk is a struggle, Wrenn said.
"You can't just keep building and building and building," said longtime Hampden resident Patricia Helfrich, 66, pointing to Tropical Storm David, which flooded the Pepsi plant with 4 feet of water in 1979, prompting the construction of a new flood wall. (The plant, once considered for a park, also flooded in 1971.)
"People don't think about these things," Helfrich said. "We don't remember history from one week to another, much less one decade to another."
Baltimore Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur said he does not shortchange concerns about the added density, though he supports plans for building in a corridor linked to the light rail. He said he expects that many of the parking worries will be answered through zoning requirements — despite some of the less-stringent designations that developers are seeking.
New, stricter federal flood regulations have been the subject of intense negotiations for some projects, including Whitehall Mill and the Pepsi plant.
"Most of the locations are pretty intensely developed already and so adding a bit more incremental development, I don't think, is going to tip anybody over the edge," Stosur said.
Many of the projects remain several years away.
The Time Group decided to sell its Clipper Mill Industrial Park properties as it saw interest in the valley return — and after concluding that redevelopment of the Schenuit rubber building, blackened by fire, with smashed windows, plant growth and graffiti, was too complicated, said Mark Caplan, the equity investment firm's president and CEO.
"It was a challenge," he said. "It doesn't mean that somebody else couldn't do it and be successful. But for us, it was not an easy building to do."
Remington Properties expects to continue the industrial leases at three of the properties, said principal Patrick Creaney. His firm is working with another on the Schenuit factory and expects to spend the next year figuring out how to redevelop the site.
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Pepsi and Hedwin both expect to continue operating in place for at least a year, Barry said.
And the owners of another major block of space in the area — the 10.6-acre parcel north of Pepsi at 1700 W. 41st St. that is leased to Hedwin — is looking for another industrial tenant, said Lee Cherney, senior vice president at Florida-based owner Kin Properties.
"We don't want to sell. We're looking to lease," he said, adding that he was not familiar with the nearby projects. "I only have time to worry about my buildings."
Allen Hicks, 66, a former president of the Hampden Community Council, who moved to the area as a VISTA organizer in 1973, said he has already seen the area lose its village-like feel.
"Anything that can be developed in that area — any small parcel — is being developed, and it doesn't make any difference what it is," said Hicks, who formed an umbrella organization for Jones Falls Valley neighborhood groups in the 2000s as development interest increased.
"I know I sound negative," he added. "I'm hoping for the best, that they'll figure something out, but I think development is going to overwhelm them all."