'A breach of trust': Developer demolishes 1840s Woodberry homes despite telling neighbors they would be saved

The Baltimore Sun

Two 19th-century stone homes in Woodberry that neighbors had waged a battle to save last year were demolished Tuesday to make way for an apartment building — prompting the developer and architect, who said they weren’t warned about the demolition, to leave the project.

The demolition marked a reversal in plans for the new apartments on the narrow property between Clipper Road and the Light Rail tracks.

The developer, CLD Partners, had relented on plans to raze the stone and brick buildings that date to the 1840s amid calls from outraged nearby residents. The company instead said it would incorporate the houses — at 3511 and 3523 Clipper Road — into the design for the apartment building, perhaps using the structures for a lobby, lounge space and a small office or shop.

Christopher Mfume, managing partner of CLD Partners, said Tuesday afternoon that such a plan turned out to be “not financially feasible.” But as public backlash over the demolitions grew, both CLD Partners and PI.KL Studio, the architecture firm that designed the apartments with the houses incorporated, announced late Tuesday night they were leaving the project because of it.

“The decision to demolish the previously existing historic properties in Woodberry was made without my prior knowledge or my consent,” Mfume said in a follow-up statement. “This morning I received a call notifying me of bulldozers on the property. While I was aware that the possibility always existed for the buildings to be demolished, I was not aware that a decision had been made.”

If CLD Partners had known the houses were going to be razed, Mfume said, “I would have gone through the proper channels and spoken directly with the Woodberry Community Association, as I have done previously.”

“I believe that trust is everything and above all I value integrity and my ability to work effectively with communities,” Mfume said. “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 PI.KL Studio, also were not aware of the plans to demolish the houses, the said in a post on the architecture firm’s Facebook.

“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,” PI.KL said.

Katherine Jennings, the resident agent of Woodberry Station, LLC, which owns the properties, could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Neighbors had thought the matter was settled, and some were surprised to learn the old houses were knocked down Tuesday.

“The developer didn't come to the Clipper Mill Associations or seek any community input from our neighborhood. I was unaware the plans changed,” said Jessica Meyer, a neighbor who opposed more development in the Clipper Mill neighborhood because of its density. “It's a shame the project couldn't be built while keeping the houses intact. The historical significance of those homes and their part in the wider Woodberry neighborhood is undeniable.”

The houses had been significantly altered, posing preservation challenges, said the developer, which had no obligation to save any part of the buildings, even though they are part of the Woodberry Historic District and on the National Register of Historic Places.

In his initial statement Tuesday afternoon, Mfume said the decision was a financial one.

“For the past year since receiving our original demolition permit we worked extremely hard to save the existing structures, including the cost of a complete redesign of the project,” Mfume said in the initial statement Tuesday. “However, as discussed with the community on multiple occasions, economics would ultimately drive the final decision.

“Unfortunately, after careful evaluation the project was not financially feasible with the existing buildings in place. We are very excited nonetheless to move this project forward and deliver on our commitment to bring more housing to our city.”

The Clipper Road apartment building was slated to include 60 to 80 mostly studio apartments renting for $1,100 to $1,300 per month. The property is within an area considered ideal for transit-oriented development, where developers can build housing appealing to those taking public transportation or biking or walking.

Christy Bergland, who lives across the street, said Mfume broke a promise to the neighborhood.

“As far as I know, the developer promised the community that the houses would be saved,” Bergland said. “I had not heard that this had changed. I am dismayed by this development and the lack of communication on their part, especially to me right across from this project.”

Sheri Higgins, president of the Woodberry Community Association, called the demolition “a breach of trust.”

“We thought we had a working relationship that would benefit both the developer and the community,” Higgins said. “That appears not to be the case any longer.”

City Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III, who represents the area, stood across the street with neighbors as a demolition crew removed the rubble from the sidewalk Tuesday morning.

Pinkett called the surprise demolition “disappointing, to say the least” given the yearlong effort to preserve the houses. He said he had left messages with Mfume to ask why they were knocked down, despite the company’s assurances to neighbors to the contrary.

“I will continue until I get an explanation on what happened that the agreement that was in place with the community was all of a sudden ignored,” Pinkett said. “These buildings that were supposed to be incorporated into this development were all of a sudden demolished. … Not only were the buildings demolished, but the confidence and trust that this community placed in this developer was destroyed. ”

As Baltimore seeks to grow while preserving its history, the proposed development could have been a “shining example of how it can work,” Pinkett said. Instead, he said, it was a “missed opportunity.”

“This doesn’t just happen in Woodberry and Clipper Mill,” the councilman said. “This happens in Druid Heights and Upton. If our history is important — if preserving these structures and the legacy of the individuals who lived and worked and played in these historic structures — if that’s important, we’ve got to make certain we put the proper measures in place so that things like this don’t happen again.”

CLD Partners had secured a six-month extension on the city demolition permits for the buildings through June 18 and had its general contractor, Paradise Homes, call last Tuesday to schedule it, said Paula Richardson, CEO of Demolition Man Contractors, which did the work.

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The demolition company had previously removed additions from the houses, but Richardson had been told the historic stone houses themselves were not slated to be knocked down.

“They weren’t, as far as I knew, until last week,” she said.

She showed the permits to Pinkett and an inspector on the scene. While the proper permits had been issued by the city, Richardson said, she was bothered that neighbors weren’t told in advance — and that no CLD Partners representatives came to answer questions, leaving her to explain their actions to the upset neighbors.

“I don’t like that they did that,” Richardson said. “I don’t understand why they did that.”

Jill Orlov, who lives up the street, said she was walking her dog past the houses Tuesday morning when she realized with horror the buildings were being torn down. She choked up as she discussed the loss it represented to her neighborhood.

“I can’t even tell you how distraught I was, seeing this history gone,” Orlov said.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mercohn

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