A proposed Baltimore City Council bill that would establish an overlay district in Fells Point restricting building height beyond a specified threshold and regulating all new construction has sparked backlash among investors and developers as well as fair housing advocates who contend that the legislation would unnecessarily deter development and diversity.

The bill reflects the will of a number of Fells Point community associations that want to maintain the historic neighborhood’s scale and aesthetic. Sponsored by Councilman Zeke Cohen, the overlay district legislation would cap building height at 40 feet, except for properties located around the Broadway Corridor, which could not exceed 50 feet.


In a previous interview with The Baltimore Sun, Cohen said the ordinance would protect the neighborhood’s unique, historic character and prevent it from evolving into a neighborhood like nearby Harbor East, which has experienced dramatic commercial and residential growth over the past several decades.

While he said his constituents oppose adding “huge, hulking apartment buildings” to the area, they do not disapprove of promoting density, so long as any addition remains commensurate with the area’s existing nature.

Cohen didn’t return messages seeking comment regarding opposition to the proposed legislation.

But some, like Barbara Samuels, managing attorney of the ACLU of Maryland’s Housing program, said the legislation could prevent developers from building low-cost housing options in Fells Point, perpetuating the notion of “two Baltimores,” a phrase many use to distinguish the city’s haves from the have-nots.

“When we curtail the ability to do more diverse kinds of building in this large part of the city, that’s a citywide concern,” said Samuels, a resident of Fells Point, which dates to 1763. “It preserves racial and economic segregation.”

Samuels said Fells Point, though currently a relatively affluent neighborhood, historically housed a racially and economically diverse population. In the 19th century, a sizable number of free African Americans lived there, including Frederick Douglass, who developed five homes on Dallas Street.

Many community members worked in jobs related to the port. In the past, Samuels said the area held not just row homes and shops, but a mix of industrial buildings, apartments buildings, and even a scrap yard on the 2000 block of Aliceanna St., where many recently opposed the construction of a new multifamily building.

She also said the proposed overlay district encompasses more than just the historic parts of Fells Point.

“It’s preserving a history that never existed.”

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“The tool they’re using is a blunt instrument rather than a more granular approach,” she said, adding that she submitted testimony opposing the bill to the City Council and the city’s planning department. “It’s preserving a history that never existed.”

Supporters of the overlay legislation said they advocated for formalized legal action to avoid waging the same fights against all new development proposals.

In an email flyer circulated by the neighborhood associations, they asked for the community to “fight the height” by attending community meetings, testifying at hearings and sending written testimony in support of the bill.

The flyer warns that current zoning code “would allow for radically out-of-scale development in our charming historic neighborhood; add more cars and traffic in an already overly congested area; eliminate views and sight lines; and overburden our aging infrastructure.”

Scott Goldman, president of the Fells Prospect Community Association, which supports the overlay legislation, said the bill will ensure that all new development in the area remains “thoughtful” and retains the existing character.

“It ends up being a proxy for all these other things, like more people, more cars," he said. “Every development is very contentious and having a certain limit on height answers a lot of the questions.”


But Samuels said the neighborhood, considered a major attraction within the city, should welcome, rather than prohibit, more people.

“If it’s low density, that’s only affordable to affluent people,” she said. “Pretty much every ‘NIMBY’ battle that I have witnessed or read about has always trotted out the ‘preserving neighborhood character’ line.”

Doug Schmidt, founder of WorkShop Development, the Baltimore firm behind the redevelopment of the Bagby Building at 1010 Fleet St. and the site of the former Della Notte restaurant near Harbor East, echoed this sentiment.

“There’s a fair debate to be had about these historic areas, but I don’t think this is the way you grow a city,” Schmidt said. “I question anti-growth sentiments, and I wonder if they’re in the best interest of the city."

William Rueter, the manager of a real estate investment partnership that owns property in Fells Point and Canton, said in a letter to Cohen and the Baltimore City Planning Department that the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation already curbs wanton development in Fells Point, effectively restricting building heights in much of the area 60 feet.

While a 10- or 20-foot foot difference might not sound like much, Rueter wrote, it could hamper an investor’s interest in a given space.

Eliminating a potential 10 or 20 feet from a development reduces critical revenue potential while the fixed costs of construction remain about the same, Schmidt explained. Therefore, he said, rents would have to be higher to make up the difference.

Schmidt previously worked on a project on the site of the former Aliceanna Street scrap yard in 2015, one of a number of properties proposed in Fells Point that sparked backlash from community members. WorkShop Development backed off a 90-unit, five-story apartment building that would have risen about 52 feet.

Rueter argued that the building height restrictions would hinder Fells Point from attracting diverse and sustainable development that could move all of Baltimore in the direction of progress. Instead, he suggested, the “shortsighted” overlay district would hold back the neighborhood’s future value and potential.

“There’d be less opportunity for experimentation for residences and business and creating density if you limit heights,” he said. “It’s in the interest of the city that we embrace ways to invigorate the economy.”

At least 10 community associations back 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 overlay legislation, introduced in April, is scheduled for a public hearing Aug. 7 before the Land Use and Transportation Committee.