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Signaling conflict ahead, Baltimore historic preservation commission denies approval to Clipper Mill apartment building plans

A virtual rendering of the proposed 3535 Clipper Mill, as presented to CHAP on Tuesday.
A virtual rendering of the proposed 3535 Clipper Mill, as presented to CHAP on Tuesday. (JP2 Architects)

Baltimore’s historic preservation panel denied approval to a design team working to develop a five-story apartment building within the newly designated Woodberry Historic District, a small victory for community members who oppose the project as well as local preservationists.

The neighborhood faced a major blow in May 2019 when two 19th-century stone homes that neighbors had waged a battle to save were demolished without warning — prompting the former developer and architect to leave the project. The neighborhood, once a Civil War-era mill town, received historic designation in July, which protects it from major development initiatives without the commission’s approval.

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The city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, also known as CHAP, reviewed plans Tuesday for a five-story apartment building with an estimated 50 residential units on the Clipper Road site, replacing a remaining metal-sided warehouse. It’s the latest in a series of proposals to increase the amount of housing in the Woodberry neighborhood.

Called Woodberry Two, the new project’s ground floor would include a leasing office, bike storage, shared amenity areas and space for a café, according to CHAP’s staff report.

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The CHAP staff deemed the warehouse a “non-contributing” building to the historic district. A single two-and-a-half story stone duplex at 3605 and 3607 Clipper Road remains as the sole survivor of the original four on the block.

Still, after nearly an hour of impassioned testimony from city officials, preservationists and frustrated neighbors, the commission sent the plans back to the design team for further review, urging them to rethink the height and composition of the building.

A virtual rendering of the proposed 3535 Clipper Mill, as presented to CHAP on Tuesday.
A virtual rendering of the proposed 3535 Clipper Mill, as presented to CHAP on Tuesday. (JP2 Architects)

CHAP staff had met with the development team several times since July and had recommended that they reduce the height of the building by at least one floor or by stepping down a portion of the fifth floor. The builders, led by Gordon Godat of JP2 Architects, knocked off a little more than seven feet in the plans presented on Tuesday.

“The building is still too tall,” said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, in brief testimony, adding that the choice of materials also “goes too far."

The staff report, presented by Walter Gallas, a historic preservation planner, argued that the proposed building would be built on a site that hadn’t had a historic structure on it for decades, meaning that the new structure would not result in a net loss for the preservation community. The report also said that the resulting structure was of a lower height than the Shiloh Church, the largest building in the neighborhood.

“The contemporary design doesn’t pretend to be historic,” the report reads. “Yet the design challenge is how to visually relate a new building at this location to the surrounding historic buildings and streetscape.”

The team also presented its new guiding principles for development, the first of which calls for avoiding the demolition of historic buildings, structures and landscapes when designing new construction projects.

The proposed site of the 3535 Clipper Mill apartment building would replace what is now a metal warehouse.
The proposed site of the 3535 Clipper Mill apartment building would replace what is now a metal warehouse.

The developers previously won approval from the city’s Urban Design and Architectural Advisory Panel for another building, Woodberry One at 3511 Clipper Road, located immediately to the south. But that approval came before the district received the historic designation, a point that community members raised in testimony.

Neighbors previously expressed reservations about the new development plans, voicing concerns about worsening traffic and parking problems and the lack of new retail and office space. The new building would further reduce parking.

Outgoing City Councilman Leon Pinkett said the commission should not approve more developments in the district until the plans satisfy the community’s concerns.

It “baffled” him how much time he has spent on the council pushing other members and commissions to “safeguard” the city, he added. The addition of a building that offends the character of the community memorializes the unwanted destruction of its past, Pinkett said.

“We should be preserving communities with historic value,” he said.

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Since the demolition in May 2019, residents have met developers' plans with inherent distrust, said Laura Penza, one of the CHAP commissioners. While community input makes a difference, she cautioned that revised plans do not have to include materials that are historic or historic looking.

“There is a trust issue that needs to be resolved on all sides,” she said.

In August, the developer of Clipper Mill filed a $25 million lawsuit against condo and town house owners in the community for speaking out against its plans to build more homes. Residents representing two homeowners groups appealed in court.

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