A $13 million mixed-use development in Upper Fells Point would not be financially viable without 38 percent more apartments, the developer says. And it will have less parking than required by zoning regulations, a situation City Councilman James Kraft (D-1st) pledged to oppose.
"We basically won the right to redo this property right at the beginning of the worst financial crisis in this nation's history," says Daniel Henson, the former Baltimore City Housing Commissioner, who with partners struck a deal last year to buy 1621 Bank St. and an adjoining parking lot from the city for $584,300—a bit more than half of its appraised value.
Fells Point Station, a five-year-old redevelopment scheme planned for the property, was put in question last Thursday, when city building official Antonio Santana placed an emergency demolition and condemnation sign on the building. City workers were pumping out the basement yesterday and, apparently, making other repairs. Henson said he did not receive a message from City Paper last week asking about that situation.
Henson says he has been planning the project since 2005. Originally it was to comprise 30 luxury condominiums and some 6,500 square feet of retail space, but those plans changed late last year, when he announced he was seeking federal aid and would build 33 rental units and 8,000 square feet of commercial space instead.
At a meeting last night with neighbors of his Douglass Place project, held in a back room of Henninger's Tavern two blocks from the proposed project, Henson revealed yet another change in plans: Instead of 33 apartments, he now hopes to build 45.
He said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano is supporting the change.
The new plan calls for 19 one-bedroom units and 26 two-bedroom units. They will range in size from about 690 square feet to about 1,200 square feet, and rent for between $680 and $1,200 per month. Henson said his company is applying for a low-income housing tax credit to help finance the project, and that getting that credit requires five of the apartments be reserved for "non-elderly disabled" people now awaiting housing under HUD's "section 8" program, under which tenants pay 30 percent of their income for rent and the government pays the rest.
At the meeting, Kraft asked if drug addiction were considered a disability under the program's definitions. Assistant Housing Commissioner Peter Engle replied that it can be, although "typically people with drug addiction have multiple diagnoses."
Deirdre Hammer, president of the Douglass Place Neighborhood Association, said that this concerned her, as the neighborhood is already "saturated with social services."
"I know it concerns people," Engle said. "I don't have easy answers." He said that the eviction rate for non-elderly disabled people in the voucher program was between 2.5 and 5percent, which is "in line with our voucher plan, generally."
Kraft: "My concern is, five units out of 45, if you ended up with even three really bad tenants it could destroy the project."
Henson assured the group that his management company would speedily evict any problem tenants.
The project will require several zoning variances, Henson said, including a 57 percent variance on the required lot size per dwelling unit. The bigger concern may be parking. Henson said he has 22 spaces in the current plan, against 27.5 required by zoning.
"No way," Kraft exclaimed. "No way that you can have less than one-to-one [parking spaces per dwelling unit]. The community can't take that. That's not gonna happen. All through Canton it's two-to-one. I know that's not the law, but it's [what it takes to get neighborhood approval].
Regarding the building's fate, Henson said he hasn't "even thought about" the project's viability if 1621 Bank is demolished. "I'm a preservationist," he said. "I'm the guy that saved a lot of buildings in Baltimore over the years."