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Mill development divides Woodberry

Mildred Ruby, 80, remembers the chickens, sheep, goats and rabbits that used to roam around her 1850s stone house in Woodberry, about three miles from Baltimore's City Hall. She also remembers the three stables that stood in her back yard.

Such rusticity was ending in 1959, when a 900-foot antenna tower gave Ruby's community its other name, Television Hill. About that time, construction of the Jones Falls Expressway brought an elevated river of concrete that blocked the view of the industrialized stream valley.

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Now, a $60 million development of upscale homes, offices and stores is rising at the site of the former Clipper Mill, next to a light rail station and Druid Hill Park. It has divided Woodberry's approximately 500 households. Some residents fear that gentrification will destroy their quaint neighborhood; others back the project.

Woodberry's biggest property owner accuses the developer of the Clipper Mill project, Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, of trying to drive him out of business.

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"Struever is a steamroller; he just rolls over everybody," said Kenneth B. Mumaw, whose holdings, with his son, include the 10-acre former Hooper Mill complex, which adjoins Struever's site on Parkdale Avenue.

C. William Struever, the company's president, denied the allegation. His company is the city's leading renovator of abandoned or underused industrial spaces, turning them into shops, restaurants and residences.

The writing is on the wall for the relics of Woodberry's smokestack past. In January, consultants for Baltimore Development Corp. recommended that all of the mill town's industrial properties west of the Jones Falls Expressway be zoned for mixed use to allow redevelopment.

Few residents are watching this dispute as indifferently as Ruby, known as "Miss Millie," who remembers devastating floods, a blaze at a Woodberry rubber factory in the 1930s and a fire that destroyed the steeple of a church and melted its bell.

"I don't care," she said of the Clipper Mill project that promises to gentrify her enclave over the next three years. "If it goes like they are saying it is, it's going to be something else."

Neighborhood concerns

Some neighbors are worried. They live in houses that typically sell for less than $80,000, and single-family homes at Clipper Mill are likely to cost $500,000 or more.

"The attraction of the neighborhood is its history and its natural places. But to bring downtown to a mill village is just going to kill it," said Jan Danforth, co-founder of the Woodberry Land Trust. She said her group has few objections to low-density development but wants woodlands around Woodberry to stay undeveloped.

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The group suffered a setback in December, when the City Council approved the sale of 50 acres north of Television Hill to Loyola, allowing the college to build an athletic complex.

Danforth fears that projects like Struever's will threaten other aspects of Woodberry's long-established way of life.

"One of the happy things about Woodberry is that it's a dry neighborhood, where there are no package-goods stores and no bars," she said. A cafe planned for Clipper Mill might bring a liquor license to Woodberry, ending a tradition that dates to before Prohibition.

Tracey Brown, another preservation activist, said residents are "thrilled" that Struever is redeveloping the burned-out mill. But the commercial photographer says the project's scale and density are excessive, and would create a traffic nightmare on Woodberry's narrow streets.

Though design work is incomplete, Clipper Mill is expected to have more than 200 units, with apartments, townhouses and single-family homes. The project includes office and retail space.

Timothy E. Pula, project director for Clipper Mill, disputed the notion that it would cause traffic problems. He said Struever "had a very thorough traffic study done" before deciding not to put an entrance on 41st Street. The development will have two access points, from Union and Parkdale avenues, though people involved in the project say the city is looking into reopening access roads through Druid Hill Park that have been blocked for decades.

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Traffic questions have become a sore point for Mumaw, a longtime Woodberry resident.

"We are not an absentee landlord," he said. "We get very upset with the new guy on the block trying to get us out of business."

The Hooper Mill buildings owned by Mumaw and his son may look decrepit but are fully occupied with tenants such as a leading architectural restoration company, artists and the Baltimore City Archives. Because of that, Mumaw, who at one point was negotiating to sell the buildings to Struever, said he wants to continue their current use.

Many Woodberry residents are watching the feud closely.

"Any change is better than an empty shell," artist Jason Hoylman said of Clipper Mill's centerpiece. "But it's the Struever Brothers; they are the people you love to hate."

Other projects

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The Clipper Mill project, now under construction, is Struever's third major investment in the Jones Falls Valley, home of Baltimore's earliest textile mills and foundries.

Its first conversion project was a former sail factory in Hampden in 1983, which became the Mill Center office complex. In 2000, the company did a similar adaptation at the old Stieff Silver plant in Hampden. When Clipper Mill became available just across the Jones Falls, it was a perfect match, Pula said.

Struever made no bones about his interest in further conversions along the Jones Falls Valley, site of a new greenway network of biking and jogging paths.

"We want to celebrate the incredible majesty of those old buildings and the magic of the park," he said, but he added that most of the available buildings are in a flood plain, limiting their reuse.

Though Woodberry is off the beaten path, developers are showing so much interest in nearby neighborhoods that a Mill Valley Community Council was formed recently to apply the brakes.

Allen Hicks, president of the affiliated Hampden Community Council, said a dozen neighborhood groups from Woodberry to Wyman Park created the umbrella group because they doubted the city's ability to use zoning and other existing mechanisms to control growth.

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"No one has faith in what they tell you," said Hicks, a computer specialist for the state.

With house prices in Hampden soaring, every parking lot, green space and unused building suddenly becomes an investment possibility, Hicks said.

"We support development; development is good," he said. "But we don't want Hampden to turn into another Canton."

Across the stream, light rail tracks and expressway that separate Hampden from Woodberry, Danforth expressed similar reservations about redevelopment of her old mill town.

"Quite a few people listen to me," she said, "but they are not the decision-makers."


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