After the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church was ravaged by a lightning-strike fire four years ago, the Hampden neighborhood was left with what appeared to be an unusable building.
But Mark Dent saw more than a burned-out shell of an old stone church. He saw the future home of Chesapeake Systems, the 25-person computer company he co-owns.
Still, the rebirth of the burned out church as a commercial building almost didn't happen. Dent's company spent months — and thousands of dollars — trying to work through the city's antiquated zoning law. As the process dragged on, he thought seriously about moving out of Baltimore, to an office park off Interstate 95.
The city hopes to avoid such near-misses with a far-reaching piece of legislation, "Transform Baltimore," that would replace the city's decades-old zoning law. The new law is designed to be more understandable, speed up the zoning process, and discourage ad hoc zoning layers that are being used to sidestep outmoded rules.
"We've missed out on opportunities for investment because of red tape," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who introduced the new zoning legislation to the City Council in October. The overhaul, promoting mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities, will help the city's population begin growing again, she said.
The new code is more focused on broadening the options for development. The Planning Department — which this week begins a series of public meetings on the proposed revisions — hopes it will allow vacant buildings such as the Hampden church to be reused more easily.
Dent is proud of the unique, historically reverent space he's created for Chesapeake Systems, which handles Macintosh computer systems for businesses from New York to Washington.
The main stained-glass window at the back of the church is a pixelated representation of the company's logo. Dent hopes to restore the organ to working order. And he is contemplating installing a roof deck, accessible from the remaining church tower stairwell.
"It's really nice to have a building with character," said employee Zeb Drinkwater. He and his colleagues have individual work stations in the renovated church basement. "Showing up at a place with white cubicle walls, it can be soul-crushing."
The renovated space is a far cry from the eyesore the abandoned church had become. Dent recalls that the stained glass was boarded up, the grass was overgrown and a construction fence surrounded the lot at the corner of West 33rd Street and Chestnut Avenue, in the midst of Hampden rowhouses.
"We were at a point where we wanted to own something and I saw it sitting here," Dent said. Before moving in over July 4th weekend last year, Chesapeake Systems spent the prior 15 years in the nearby Mill Centre. "I knew all of the employees were OK with it because we were already in the area."
Getting the OK from the city was not as simple. The zoning process dragged on for 10 months and cost Chesapeake Systems thousands of dollars in fees to a consultant who helped the company navigate it.
"How much time and energy did I put into it? How much emotional stress did it cause?" Dent said.
On display in Chesapeake System's office, as a reminder of the work needed to get into the space, is a timeline that marks each major event in the rezoning. It is surrounded by 10 other frames filled with documents and photos related to the company's trying months in the zoning maze, which required Councilwoman Belinda Conaway to introduce legislation specific to the property.
The Planning Commission, on the recommendation of the Planning Department, disapproved of the legislation. Under Maryland law, the church did not qualify for rezoning because its current classification was not a mistake nor had the character of the neighborhood changed, according to the department's legislative analysis.
"I don't still quite understand why they approved it," Dent said of the City Council, which permitted the zoning change — in spite of the Planning Commission's assessment that it was illegal (the city's Law Department came to the opposite conclusion). Although it worked out in the end, the process soured Dent on the city's zoning regulations, which he sees as standing in the way of Baltimore's ability to hold on to prospering companies.
"I live in the county. Most of my employees live in the county," Dent said, adding that it would have been easier to get to clients if Chesapeake Systems were near a highway.
The city's zoning code was developed by a commission appointed in 1957, according to reports in The Baltimore Sun. It was eventually introduced to the City Council in 1968 and approved in 1971. It followed a suburban model, separating commercial and residential uses.
This time around, the city began rethinking the zoning code in 2008, holding public meetings to discuss what works and what doesn't, according to Tom Stosur, the city's planning director.
The next year Camiros Ltd., a Chicago-based planning consultant, was hired to work with officials to develop zones that will meet the city's current needs. Public comment, drafting and redrafting of the 343-page proposed law continued until it was introduced to the council.
Back in August 2010, when the Planning Department disapproved of Dent's proposal for the Hampden church, Stosur made explicit in the legislative analysis that the new code would allow the church to be used for businesses such as Chesapeake Systems.
The new law would create a category called "neighborhood commercial establishment," allowing a business to open in residential areas as long as the existing commercial structure it is moving into is "non-residential in its construction and original use."
The new category would avoid the requirement of having a law passed to rezone a specific property for commercial use. And that would save time for business owners — and City Council members, who currently have to shepherd zoning changes in their districts though the legislative process.
If the new code had been in place when Dent applied, he would only have needed approval from the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals to transform the church. "It would be a four- to six-week kind of process instead of the nine- to 12-month zoning change process," Stosur said.
"There's still many opportunities for the community to understand [a proposal] and give input," in the zoning process, said Laurie Feinberg, head of the city's comprehensive planning program. The zoning appeals board can even apply conditions to the property's use, she said.
The Planning Department hopes this shorter process will satisfy neighborhood groups, including the Hampden Community Council, which raised a concern about parking availability during the rezoning of Chesapeake System's new home.
The "neighborhood commercial establishment" category, which limits commercial uses to businesses compatible with residential areas including day care centers, art studios and restaurants, is one of many "tools" introduced by the legislation to merge contemporary sensibilities with the zoning law, Stosur said.
Another example is the "industrial mixed-use district." This district will encourage "the reuse of older industrial buildings for light industrial use" and other commercial and residential uses, including "live/work dwellings," according to the bill.
The Planning Department says such a "loft district" would encompass structures like the Copycat building in Greenmount West, an industrial building that was turned into an artists' loft less than 10 years ago. Under the current zoning code, it took months to have a procedural bandage — a "planned unit development" — approved to make it a legal space for residences.
Under the new code, residences would be allowed in buildings like Copycat "as-of-right, over the counter," Stosur said. All that would be required is approval by the zoning administrator, an independent office that ensures construction activity complies with the zoning code. It could take as little as a day, he said.
So far, the proposed zoning code has been met with limited criticism. Most objections from the public or business owners have related to provisions designed to reduce the number of corner stores that sell liquor, and prevent temporary parking lots downtown from becoming permanent.
The Planning Department, though, recognizes questions about the zoning overhaul will persist as the City Council nears its decision on the law. The department recently sent 170,000 property owners notices about meetings that have been planned, starting Wednesday, to discuss the proposed law.
The Planning Department and the mayor are asking people to come out to learn more about the zoning changes, which they hope will help Baltimore progress as a liveable, walkable city.
"We really need community input to make sure we get this right," Rawlings-Blake said.
Thursday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. — Morgan State University
Thursday, March 7 at time to be announced — Planning Department (417 E. Fayette St., 8th Floor)
Wednesday, April 3 at 5 p.m. — City Council Hearing at City Hall
Source: Baltimore Planning Department, subject to change
Some proposed categories in new zoning law
Open Space Zoning District. Permanently preserves open space "as an important public asset and critical environmental infrastructure" in order to "enhance the quality of life for city residents." Many park areas are currently zoned for residential use, according to the Planning Department.
Bio-Science Campus Zoning District. Allows for a "broad mix of uses" including office, research and development, limited retail, educational facilities and some high-density residences. An earlier version of this zoning district was amended to allow for limited retail, according to the department.
Rowhouse Mixed-Use Overlay District. "Intended to address those areas of rowhouse development where a mixed-use environment is desired, where some rowhouse structures are used for residential uses and others for first-floor commercial uses." East 25th Street between North Calvert and Barclay streets in the Barclay neighborhood is a good example of this zoning overlay, the department said.
• Maritime Industrial Zoning District. Will preserve "deep-water frontage of the Port of Baltimore for maritime use by delineating an area where maritime shipping can be conducted." This new district will prevent waterfront residences from cropping up on land important to the city's shipping industry, the department said.
Transit-Oriented Development Districts. Four district types with varying building height, residential density and mixed-use requirements for areas around current and future transits hubs. The districts are designed to encourage development that will increase the use of public transportation.