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Meadow Mill businesses rain weary, wary

Baltimore Messenger

With 200,000 square feet of space in a renovated mill on Clipper Mill Road adjacent to the Jones Falls waterway, the Meadow Mill business complex has plenty of reasons why it is attractive to tenants.

That said, the former London Fog factory also is prone to flooding when heavy rains hit the area.

Even predictions of bad weather — such as in the last week of September when the forecast called for as much as 6 inches of rain — can cause tenants to take significant precautions.

That's because the complex's business owners were already on edge after the July 30 deluge that devastated nearby Ellicott City. That storm did not have as wide or dramatic an effect on Meadow Mill, although it still battered several businesses in the complex.

One business, Mouth Party, was wiped out by the flood, which motivated the caramel candy maker to temporarily move to Cold Spring Lane in Roland Park, where it reopened Oct 3.

Other businesses in the complex — Meadow Mill Athletic Club, Nepenthe and La Chucara restaurant — suffered some damage to either the business itself or to vehicles in the parking lot.

Nepenthe, a store dedicated to home-brewing beer and wine and cheese making, was closed for a week after 5 feet of water gushed through and knocked down a back wall before ruining equipment, spoiling brewing ingredients and tossing three 7-foot refrigerators across the room.

How much inventory did the business lose?

"All of it," said Jill Antos, who owns Nepenthe with her husband, Brian Arnold. "Unfortunately, we've had experience with flooding in April of 2014. So we kind of knew what we were going to have to do to clean up."

In both instances, including in early August, Nepenthe closed for a week.

In late September, Antos and Arnold took preemptive measures by moving everything she could to a nearby empty building provided by the complex's owner, Himmelrich Associates.

"We check the weather from as many sources as we can. Then we rounded up the troops of family and employees," Antos said. "It took eight people and a full day to do it."

Meadow Mill Athletic Club owner Nancy Cushman said that the building and its squash courts avoided extensive problems from the July storm.

However, there were still cleanup costs for water that leaked under doors to the facility, and vehicles in the parking lot suffered major damage when the water rose to an estimated 4 feet.

"I was told there were 30-plus cars flooded in the parking lot," Cushman said, noting that a 14-seat bus and an SUV belonging to Baltimore Squashwise, a nonprofit that teaches the sport to Baltimore public middle school students, were ruined. "It doesn't take a whole lot of rain to spill over into the parking lot these days, and it doesn't take a lot of muddy, cruddy water to do damage inside."

Dam obstructions

At least part of the problem, Cushman contends, is that the Jones Falls is inundated with large tree trunks that dam the waterway and allow sediment to accumulate, eventually giving rise to overgrowth that clogs the waterway. A huge wad of trash, including many plastic bottles and containers, gets stuck near a concrete support wall for the bridge that spans the Jones Falls.

"It seems like the volume of runoff from upstream is much greater now than it has been in the past 23 years," said Cushman, who opened the club in November 1992.

What she fears most is a repeat of the 2004 storm that forced 2 feet of water onto the club's 16 squash courts and 1,200-foot fitness studio, all of which had to be replaced.

A similar event occurred in 2014, causing Himmelrich Associates and Cushman to split $85,000 worth of cleanup fees, which did not include other costs she incurred as a result of the flood.

Himmelrich Associates principal Sam Himmelrich Jr. and Cushman would like the city to help alleviate the problem, although it has been particularly difficult to pin down the city's role in the situation.

"The bridge where debris gets caught is the owner's responsibility," said Kristin Baja, Baltimore City climate and resilience planner. "But flooding is complicated and debris is one piece of the puzzle. We are trying our best to look at riverine flooding challenges comprehensively. Our office works with other city agencies to implement proactive outreach programs with building owners and tenants and to identify possible mitigation measures."

However, when asked in an email to specify which city agency is responsible for the part of the waterway not under the bridge in the immediate Meadow Mill area, JaLeesa Tate, the city's coastal resources planner, replied that "it would be best to reach out to the Department of Public Works or the Department of Transportation."

"City officials are working to get a firm legal opinion on who has responsibility for what, and where — for both public and private," said Jeffrey Raymond, communications and community affairs chief for the city DPW, in an email. "I don't have a timeline for this."

With the matter unresolved, the best course of action for Himmelrich and his tenants might be to be cognizant of and prepare for impending bad weather.

Taking Steps

Himmelrich said that he and his company have always been up front about the risks of occupying space in a flood plain.

"All of our users are made aware," said Himmelrich, who purchased Meadow Mill in 1989. "They even sign a separate document attached to their lease acknowledging the situation. In other words, we're not trying to fool anyone. Additionally, we wish the city would take a more active approach to removing obstructions in the waterway."

Himmelrich said that his company contracted to clear debris, including large logs, under the bridge a few days before the predicted September storm.

"We tried to reduce the obstruction from a potential storm," he said, noting that his company has installed flood channels in front of Meadow Mill businesses. "We want to make it work for our tenants."

Mouth Party owner B.G. Purcell said that she can no longer operate her business in Meadow Mill because it has proved too risky and unsafe, with more frequent and more devastating storms pounding the area.

"Himmelrich (Associates) worked with us after the April 2014 flood to build a higher wall and to fabricate floodgates," she said. "Sadly, these floodgates were not put in place for the most recent storm."

Jacob Himmelrich, a Himmelrich Associates vice president, said his company received a notice from the city and weather service flood warnings at about 7:15 that Saturday night. "By the time we were able to mobilize people (to deploy the floodgates), it was too late," he said. "We try to get there as quickly as possible, but when a storm moves in that quickly it makes it very difficult."

La Cuchara owner Ben Lefenfeld, whose eatery sits on slightly higher ground, said that both the city and the landlord have been helpful. La Cuchara did not suffer any damage from the July storm, although water seeped into the building in the April 2014 cloudburst.

"The city lets us know when there are flood alerts," Lefenfeld said, recalling that 10 vehicles of guests and employees were lost in the July flood. "And the owner put up floodgates. But now, every time there's a threat of a storm, we have to evaluate where it is more important for us and our guests to park. The water just comes up so quickly, we hardly have any time to react."

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