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Developer, architect of Woodberry apartments quit project as city orders demolition of 1840s homes halted

The city ordered work halted on demolition on the site of a planned apartment project in Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood and the developer and the architect quit the job because they said they were not warned the owner would raze a pair of 1840s-era stone houses that had been incorporated into the design.

A bright orange legal notice was duct-taped to a “no trespassing” sign at 3511 Clipper Road by Wednesday night. It read “STOP WORK” with three reasons: no proper water source, no proper signage and no first day of demolition.

Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III, who represents the area, found out Wednesday afternoon that the notice had been posted.

The councilman has been pushing to get answers since a neighbor called him Tuesday about the demolition. Pinkett visited the site immediately and called city inspectors and said the property owners will be held accountable for any possible violations.

“It doesn’t bring back the two buildings that were demolished, but at least it stops the process,” the councilman said about the notice. “And it gives inspectors the opportunity to figure out what process was or was not in place when demolition occurred.”

Now that the stop work notice has been posted, Pinkett said, inspectors will be on site to meet with the demolition contractor to determine if the proper protocol was implemented.

City inspectors issued citations against the property owner and the demolition contractor Wednesday for not posting notice, not getting an on-site inspection before starting and having an insufficient water supply. The owner was fined $3,000 and the contractor was fined $1,000.

Citations, however, won’t make up for the loss of the houses or trust with the community, said Pinkett, who arranged and attended several meetings with developers in Woodberry and had talked regularly with developer Christopher Mfume and owner Katherine Jennings about the apartment project.

Pinkett learned from a Sun reporter that Mfume left the project and said clearly someone else “had a bigger say” on demolition.

Now, Pinkett says, owners and new developers will have to start over.

“They might want to reach out to me,” he said. “I’m quite sure there are some issues that have to be taken care of to move forward. I hope they don’t think the city will just now allow them to arbitrarily change these plans and move on as if nothing happened. Absolutely, the community will have some input.”

The abrupt demolition of the two houses on Clipper Road surprised the local councilman and infuriated neighbors, who had waged an ostensibly successful yearlong fight to save the historic houses — until a crew with bulldozers began tearing them down without warning Tuesday morning.

In a statement, Mfume, who owns CLD Partners, initially framed the decision to knock down the houses as a financial one. But in a follow-up statement later that night, he said the call had been made “without my prior knowledge or my consent,” and his company was leaving the project.

“I was not aware that a decision had been made,” Mfume said. “Had I been aware, I would have gone through the proper channels and spoken directly with the Woodberry Community Association, as I have done previously.

“Over the past year CLD Partners has worked to develop a trusting relationship with the Woodberry community,” he added. “We have developed during that time, a mutual trust born out of our desire to make the neighborhood better. I believe that trust is everything and above all I value integrity and my ability to work effectively with communities. As such, I have notified the owners of the property that I have decided to remove myself and CLD Partners from the Woodberry Project partnership effective immediately.”

Pavlina Ilieva and Kuo Pao Lian, the owners of the architecture firm PI.KL Studio, which had designed the apartment complex with the historic houses incorporated as a lobby, lounge, shop or office space, said Tuesday night that the unannounced demolition prompted the end of their involvement, too.

The architects were “not aware of the plans to demolish the two stone houses on 3511-3523 Clipper Rd in Baltimore, Maryland and are no longer associated with this project,” they said in a post on the firm’s Facebook page. “Furthermore, as members of the Baltimore community, we respect and support the public process and our cultural heritage. We will continue to work tirelessly to help improve Baltimore.”

Katherine Jennings, the resident agent of Woodberry Station LLC, which owns the properties, and Dave Schilling, owner of the project’s general contractor, Paradise Homes, could not be reached Wednesday morning for comment.

Larry E. Jennings Jr. — a relative of Katherine Jennings, whose Michigan-based private equity investment firm, Valstone Partners, has spent nearly $19 million on multiple buildings in Woodberry with plans for hundreds of new apartments, offices and other offerings — declined to comment.

“Goodbye,” he said, and hung up twice on a Baltimore Sun reporter who called him with questions about who ordered the demolition.

CLD Partners had relented on plans last year to raze the stone and brick buildings that date to the 1840s amid calls from outraged neighbors. The developer and architect instead incorporated the houses into the designs.

But the project obtained an extension of the city demolition permits through June 18, and Demolition Man Contracting got the call May 14 to move forward with tearing down the houses, said Paula Richardson, who owns the demolition firm.

“I guess they changed their mind,” she said.

Neighbors are still reeling from the destruction of the houses, and while they applaud the architecture firm’s decision to pull out of the project, they have questions about Mfume’s two statements after the demolition, said Sheri Higgins, president of the Woodberry Community Association.

The developer first explained and appeared to be taking responsibility for the move, she said, only to deny any prior knowledge of it and quit the job hours later.

“That still has to be worked out,” she said. “Because one statement of his contradicts the other.”

Higgins said she was still trying to digest the news of the past day.

“We are devastated,” she said. “It’s just so sudden and tragic, I have to have time to process where we go next.”

Marian Glebes, who lives in Brick Hill on the other side of Clipper Mill, said she still wants to know who paid Richardson and Demolition Man Contracting to take down the houses.

“She said she had already been paid for the job,” Glebes said. “She cashed a check.”

The demolition has been the talk of the neighborhood, prompting a flurry of frustrated calls, emails and text messages about the situation and what will happen moving forward.

“This project, for a moment, was a high water mark of an architect and a community convincing big money that sensitive development was possible in Baltimore City,” Glebes said. “This project could have combined historic preservation, transit-oriented development and incredible design by an incredible design team. The developer has fully breached that opportunity.”

The departure of PI.KL Studio, in particular, is drawing concern from neighbors who saw the pains they had taken to incorporate the historic homes in the apartment designs.

“It means that what is coming is even worse,” Glebes said. “The reaction of the neighborhood is disappointment and fear.”

Lian, the architect, said leaving a project in which his firm invested more than a year and a half was hard. He’s not sure who will take on the new challenge. The project did have cost issues, because of the houses and for other conditions on the site, but the team stood ready with ideas to cut the tab.

No one ever asked the architects to design a building without the houses, a move that would have saved money, though he wasn’t sure how much.

“Before we could get a directive from the owners, they unfortunately took action,” he said. “For us this was a big job and it’s definitely a hit. And it affects others, the developer, the consultant team. Unfortunately they left us no choice. If they decide to go forward with a new team, we’ve paved the way.”

Baltimore Sun reporter McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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