The Baltimore City Council may soon establish an overlay district in Fells Point that would specify building height restrictions in certain areas and regulate properties that fall within the boundaries.
Overlay districts, applied on top of existing area codes or zones, typically ensure that development in the designated region meets the goals of the underlying neighborhood. In the case of Fells Point, added construction, additions and alterations would have to "maintain the existing character” of the community, according to a draft of the bill.
Councilman Zeke Cohen, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation was introduced at the behest of several neighborhood associations, residents and community activist groups who wish to preserve the area’s historic nature and scale.
“Folks do not want huge hulking apartments in that neighborhood,” Cohen said. “We are not opposing density, but we do want a height overlay.”
Under the provisions of the bill, building height in the Fells Point Height Overlay District would be limited to 40 feet, except for properties around the Broadway Corridor, which could not exceed 50 feet. It applies only to new construction, additions and alterations, which would also require design review approval.
The more than 250-year-old neighborhood, once home to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, jazz star Billie Holiday and Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps, possesses some 161 buildings on the National Register, according to Visit Baltimore. Categorized on the National Register of Historic Places and Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, the neighborhood is also home to the Robert Long House, perhaps the oldest-known structure in the city.
David Gleason, a 40-year Fells Point resident and president of the board of The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s* Point, said a constant tension between development and historic preservation exists between residents and developers. He said the bill would ensure a definitive limit on building and construction that could safeguard the unique fabric of the area.
“The neighborhood is very fragile,” he said. “If everyone came in and did what they wanted to, you would lose the district.”
Liz Bement, a four-year resident of the neighborhood, said her Fells Point neighbors advocated on behalf of the overlay district to avoid waging fights against all new development proposals. She said prior apartment building plans at 2030 Aliceanna St. in 2015 and 509 S Washington St. in 2018 sparked outcry from the community, which united them against both projects and helped them recognize a need for formalized legislation.
“We don’t want to have to contest every single development,” Bement said, adding that she helped draft the overlay proposal that Cohen incorporated into the bill. “That’s not to discourage development, but to have smart development that works with this little historic neighborhood.”
At least 10 individual community associations backed the overlay proposal, which advocated for consideration of block continuity by limiting size, shape variance, and differences in building heights, among other points of contention.
The neighborhood boasts a long history of development resistance. Established in 1967, The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s* Point formed to opposed the construction of Interstate 95 across the Inner Harbor. The group has since worked to preserve and enhance the neighborhood’s 18th and 19th century structures.
Gleason said too few neighborhoods in the U.S. have committed themselves to protecting their storied pasts, which has evolved into a defining characteristic of Fells Point.
Some 3,380 people inhabit the neighborhood, according to data from City Data.
The overlay legislation, introduced in April, was scheduled for a public hearing on August 7 before the Land Use and Transportation Committee.