Advertisement

A house divided: Plans for new Park Heights synagogue and community center would split a duplex down the middle

A developer plans to demolish half of a shared 1924 duplex, also owned by Bernie Schulman.

The planned construction of a synagogue and community center in Park Heights would split a duplex in half in what could be an unusual demolition in Baltimore.

The adjoined houses, located in the 6100 block of Park Heights Ave., share a common wall. Bernard Schulman, the owner and occupier of one side of the duplex, said the property should remain whole.

Advertisement

“This was all designed to look like one thing,” said Schulman, who acquired his side of the symmetrically-built structure in 2001. “I don’t want to cut it in half — it decimates my property value and the quality of the real estate.”

Congregation Kahal Chassidim, a nearly five-year-old Orthodox Jewish synagogue, purchased the right half of the duplex in 2015 for $325,000, property records show. The organization owns at least nine other properties on the same block on either side of Schulman’s home. The religious group currently operates out of a temporary location at 6004 Park Heights Ave.

Rabbi Y. Zvi Weiss, the congregation’s executive director, said the demolition would pave the way for a joint synagogue and multi-use facility that could address the needs of the growing “community within a community.” The religious group owns at least part of the vacant lot immediately adjacent to the duplex’s right side.

Weiss said that the synagogue made Schulman “a very fair offer” for his property. The state values his side of the duplex at about $142,000 and the synagogue’s side at $157,000 for tax purposes.

Schulman said he feels little desire to leave, calling the offer not sufficient for him and his wife to move and recreate what he called their “dream home.”

A contractor, Schulman originally bought his three-story home for $60,000 and then added $145,000 in renovations, according to a 2002 article published in The Baltimore Sun.

Weiss said he hopes to reach a “workable” agreement with Schulman.

“We don’t think we have the right to force people to sell their house,” Weiss said. “We’re very proud of our effort — this is not an optimal situation but nothing will happen to his house.”

Paula Richardson, owner of Baltimore-based Demolition Man Contracting, said the contractor who takes on the project will face a “nightmare” of a job in separating the two units while maintaining the integrity of Schulman’s side.

The synagogue “has the right to do that, but it would make the house look really odd,” she said. “It has to be done very carefully.”

For now though, Kahal Chassidim seeks a permit to demolish half the duplex.

The city’s demolition guidelines do not address the razing of a duplex. Requirements mandate that applicants for demolition permits must give prior “written notice to the owners of all properties that immediately adjoin the property subject to demolition or moving” and “the owners of any wired or other facilities that might have to be temporarily removed because of the proposed work,” according to the application guidelines.

Schulman said the city, by default, can treat his house as a row home or a single-family home instead of a duplex, which he perceives as a mischaracterization. He is fighting to prevent the city from issuing the demolition permit. An administrative review hearing for the permit is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday.

Weiss said the congregation has followed to the best of its ability the regulations in place and has invigorated the area with its multiple investments.

Advertisement

“All the property we bought was depressed, most were vacant, and using all private funds we feel like we’re doing a service for our community,” said the rabbi, adding that the group has turned buildings into rental units, renovated town homes and rabbinical student learning and housing facilities.

Historically, the Park Heights neighborhood has housed a large concentration of the area’s Jewish population — particularly its Orthodox community, which abides by traditional Jewish law and relies on walking to places of worship and other gathering sites on the Sabbath.

A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 10 percent of the U.S. Jewish adult population considered themselves Orthodox and suggested the likelihood of demographic growth within the minority community, as families tend to produce twice as many children as other Jews.

In all, an estimated 93,000 Jews reside in the Greater Baltimore area, according to a 2010 study by the Berman Jewish Databank.

Johns Hopkins, the executive director of Baltimore Heritage, said he has never come across a demolition project of this nature in his 16-year tenure with the historic preservation group.

“We deal so much with rowhouses and row home demolitions, but we’ve never been involved with duplexes,” he said. “It might be more expensive to do and might be something the city tries to avoid.”

The city’s Department of Housing and Community Development oversees demolition permits as well as housing, building codes, code enforcement and construction in Baltimore.

Department spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said in an email that partial duplex demolition is necessary when one half is occupied and the other is “abandoned and roofless.”

She said that the department had placed the permit application on hold pending confirmation that key details about the exposed wall, the framing detail, stabilizing the remaining structure and the demolition process were being addressed.

She did not answer whether a demolition of this nature — in which neither side of the duplex is abandoned nor roofless — had occurred before.

Advertisement
Advertisement