As developer consultant Al Barry put it to the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation Tuesday, “I hope the fourth time’s the charm.”
It was. He was referencing three failed attempts by Zahlco Development to convince the 13-member preservation panel to approve plans for a 50-unit apartment complex on W. Pratt Street in Ridgley’s Delight, the historic neighborhood sitting in the shadow of the University of Maryland medical complex and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
CHAP on Tuesday unanimously approved the latest iteration, which will include a five-story structure on the complex’s west side and a six-story building on the east side, sandwiching a four-story historic warehouse that’s currently vacant. Under the approved plans, which were designed by architecture firm Kann Partners, the developer will incorporate two historic garages’ façades as retail space at the foot of the east apartment building.
The east building would also have a set-back top floor and have ground-level parking out back along with spaces underground. The west building would be shallow enough extending backward to Dover Street to allow room for recreational space in the yard.
All of the properties, stretching from 715 to 729 W. Pratt St., are owned by either the State of Maryland or the University of Maryland Medical System Corporation. Both parties have reached a deal to sell to Zahlco to turn them into apartments.
Previous iterations had involved knocking down one or multiple buildings, including the historic warehouse in the first go-round. At an August hearing where Zahlco presented its third design for the complex, the developer proposed partially demolishing that same warehouse while keeping the historic garages next door. CHAP rejected that plan as well.
Barry said Tuesday that the developer’s first design, which would have knocked down the warehouse and replaced it with a three-story parking garage with 50 spaces, was “insensitive in some respects.” He noted the parking plan has now been scaled down to a surface lot for 20 cars, though they’re looking into outsourced arrangements for off-site parking with the nearby Sail Cloth Factory apartments and the University of Maryland. (“We’re close with the Sail Cloth Factory,” but “not there yet” with the university hospital, he said.)
While CHAP has approved the overall design for the property, specific details will still need to be hashed out. The commission’s staff planner for the project, Eddie Leon, noted in a presentation that they’re asking Zahlco to “explore simplifying” a cornice on the façade of the east building, and consider eliminating the planned setback for its sixth floor.
And there are lasting design-related concerns from neighbors. Deborah O’Neill, a member of the Ridgely’s Delight Architectural Review Committee for CHAP, said they had tried repeatedly to get information from Zahlco about what materials and colors would be used for the façades, to no avail. Of particular concern is the back exterior, which faces Dover Street, a narrow brick-lined road with historic rowhouses.
“What we look at every day is the Dover Street façade,” she said. “That is what is most important to the people who live in the neighborhood. And we’ve made that very clear from day one.”
O’Neill applauded the new design by the architects and developer, calling it “a beautiful, beautiful use of historic buildings that were already there.” However, she asserted the developer hasn’t been forthcoming with appearance-related details, and she and another neighbor, Annette Hopkins, said they’ve also gotten mixed narratives about why the city can’t allow for cars to access to the east building’s outdoor parking lot from W. Pratt Street. (In the most recent design, cars would only be able to enter into the lot on Dover Street, where the neighbors live.)
“It’s very narrow,” O’Neill added on a phone call Wednesday. “The street itself is quite fragile. We are simply concerned that the street can’t handle that kind of traffic.”
They’re also worried that the street is too narrow for oncoming traffic alongside parked cars, and about retailers’ trucks dropping off inventory and potentially blocking the road.
CHAP Chairman Thomas Liebel told O’Neill info about the looks of the façades “will be coming back to us” at another meeting concerning design details. Asked if the Ridgley’s Delight Architectural Review Committee is comfortable with the overall scale of the project, O’Neill said yes, with the caveat that they want to know “what Dover Street will look like.”
On the parking-access issue, Leon said he’s asked the Department of Transportation for specifics on why an entrance can’t be carved out to the back lot from Pratt Street, but mentioned there are concerns about damaging façades and limited turning radius for cars, among other traffic engineering issues. Liebel called for a clarification to give to the neighbors moving forward.
The next CHAP hearing will be Nov. 13. Barry said the developer hopes to have its design plans for the apartment buildings on the docket.