Last November, when Baltimore developer Himmelrich Associates bought the 13-acre Pepsi distribution center on Union Avenue in Hampden (next to the Union Mill), it announced plans for a mixed-use development. Himmelrich paid $6.75 million for the property, and the cost to develop was estimated at $100 million.
The plan includes a 75,000 square foot supermarket — Wegmans in Hunt Valley is 140,000 sq. ft. by way of comparison — and a high-rise building containing several hundred residential apartments, as well as retail and office space. The supermarket named, according to all reports, is Harris Teeter.
In December 2015, Himmelrich’s team met with the community associations of Hampden, Woodberry, and Medfield — three Baltimore neighborhoods that will be most affected by the large-scale development. The purpose of the meetings was both to explain the plans and to ask support for a zoning change from industrial zoning to TOD (Transit Oriented Development).
Pepsi’s proximity to the Woodberry Light Rail could qualify developers for the TOD designation — an important change, because it allows for higher density building near key public transit links. TODs are an essential piece of the new Baltimore City zoning plan, Transform Baltimore, introduced in 2012 and currently awaiting approval. It will allow the city to repurpose old industrial sites, get residents to city jobs, and create new jobs to attract people back to the city. Without TOD designation at Pepsi, the site will remain industrial, and no new construction can begin.
Virtually no one familiar with the Pepsi site is sad to see it go — “it’s basically an eyesore,” says one Hampden resident. A group of neighborhood residents and business owners agreed, sharing complaints about the huge trucks rumbling down tiny streets in an area that is becoming more and more residential. A former Baltimore County resident who recently moved to Woodberry said, “I love this area the way it is, you know, kind of gritty – but a Harris Teeter down the street? That would be nice.”
A recent article in the Baltimore Sun outlined a number of proposed developments in Greater Hampden, which together could add as many as 1,000 new townhomes and apartments to the Hampden/Woodberry/Medfield neighborhoods. The article quotes City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke as saying, “Sometimes I say, when I think a project’s too dense, that although we’re trying to get 10,000 new families in Baltimore, do they really all have to fit into Hampden?”
Martin Garcia-Bunuel, a Woodberry resident since 2011, is enthusiastic about the proposed Himmelrich plan. “I love the history of this area, and I think it can also be a wonderful residential and commercial community. We moved here to be in a higher density area with public transport, restaurants, all that stuff. There’s a lot going on here already. I think this is the way to go.” He would like to be sure that the plan allows for income diversity, rather than just luxury townhomes, and agrees that traffic and parking need to be addressed. “But those aren’t reasons to say no. Young people are not as car-oriented as our generation, they want to have the option of being car-free.”
Jeff Pietrzak, also from Woodberry, basically agrees. “My personal feeling is that density of population is not a bad thing. You need a critical mass of people to do interesting stuff.” Pietrzak generally applauds the basics of the Pepsi plan, pointing out that “Himmelrich has done a good job with Meadow Mill,” a nearby commercial mill redevelopment. “I go to the gym there. We recently went to La Cuchara, the new restaurant there, it was great.” He also notes that to the extent that the old industries of Woodberry, including Pepsi, provided jobs, “those jobs are drying up, and this will absolutely provide new ones.”
Benn Ray, president of Hampden Merchants Association and owner of Atomic Books, is “generally positive” about the proposed development – but more skeptical. “They’re saying Harris Teeter,” said Ray, “but nothing is definite at this point, and for all we know, it could be a Walmart.” Last year, Ray helped to stave off a Walmart in Remington, a few miles south of the Pepsi site.
Many long-time residents of Hampden, Woodberry and Medfield feel that, combined with the other planned developments in the area, too much building could overwhelm an increasingly popular neighborhood whose infrastructure is old and in some cases, fragile. Benn Ray was one of several who raised environmental concerns. “That is a flood zone down there,” he said, referring to the low-lying mill buildings that border the Jones Falls.
At K&S Associates on Falls Road, David Scherr observed that “at least Pepsi spent the money and built the retaining wall.” After severe flooding in 1979, Pepsi built a cement retaining wall at the site to hold back the river, and since then flooding has not been an issue. “Himmelrich hasn’t done that, either at Meadow Mill or his other place over by Whole Foods, and they get flooded every time there’s a heavy rain. I’ve got to wonder, who pays for that?”
Still, he acknowledges that things in Hampden are moving in the right direction. “The night after we bought this place, 30 years ago, I was watching TV, and they were showing a cross-burning in Hampden, just down the street from here. I said ‘what’ve I gotten into?’”
One potential problem that the developer has already addressed is the traffic issue. The company recently traded a large Salvation Army facility, which they already owned on 29th street, for a facility on Buena Vista. Buena Vista is a wide, two-way street, which would allow a second egress from the proposed development. With a second entry, cars would be less reliant on the more congested Union Avenue entrance.
Himmelrich Associates is seeking a TOD designation in conjunction with the finalization of Transform Baltimore, anticipated in the first quarter of 2016. If the project successfully gains inclusion in the new plan, rather than having to apply after it has been finalized, the developer will save a great deal of both time and money. But because TOD designation has not been completely defined in the new zoning plan, communities are reluctant to sign on.
Last month, Woodberry Community Association voted not to lend its immediate support to the TOD designation, asking for more information and more time to make up its mind. A week ago, the Medfield Community Association also decided to withhold its support, citing lack of specificity in building elevations and number of parking spaces, among other concerns. Separately, Medfield residents voiced concern that large numbers of new families could overwhelm the local Medfield Elementary School, already overcrowded with 400 children. The Hampden Community Council has also voted against supporting the TOD for Pepsi.
Shannon Wren, President of the Hampden Community Council, says they hopes for a “more inclusive and thoughtful plan for the revitalization of the mill valley,” and cites a lack of leadership on that front. “It’s a big challenge that should be addressed by candidates for the 7th district seat on the City Council, if not also by the mayoral candidates.” The 7th district includes Hampden, Woodberry, and Midfield — its seat is currently occupied by Baltimore mayoral candidate Nick Mosby.
Approval for the draft Baltimore City zoning plan, which will include some of the TOD designated sites, is expected by the first quarter of 2016. But the real deadline is December 2016, when a new City Council will be in place — elections are in mid-April of this year — presumably with new priorities and different perspectives. With a new City Council, the current draft zoning plan will automatically expire, and a years-long process will start all over again.
Denise Whiting’s Café Hon was an early pioneer in Hampden’s revitalization, opening on The Avenue back in 1992, when things were pretty bleak in this working class neighborhood. Now, Café Hon manager Lisa Davis thinks concerns about over development here are “just part of normal gentrification.”
“Sure, there’s been a lot of change, but most of the old neighbors are still here. There’s room for both – that’s one of the good things about Baltimore,” she says.
Cynthia McIntyre is a Baltimore freelance writer. Her column Hot House appears Tuesdays in the Baltimore Fishbowl.