Editor’s note: A previous version of this article used source information that reported that Foreman Wolf’s new restaurant in the former Café Hon space would be taking over the off-street parking spaces currently used by The Wine Source. After this article’s publication, restaurateur Tony Foreman explained that his restaurant is not involved with the parking spaces in question. The article has been updated.
A hearing was postponed on legislation to create a 10-space parking lot in place of two houses on Elm Avenue in Hampden, to help make up for the off-street parking spaces The Wine Source is potentially losing.
The council bill drafted to create the new parking lot, No. 22-0332, was scheduled to be discussed on Tuesday by the council’s Economic and Community Development Committee, in a hearing that was a preliminary step before it can go to the full council for a vote.
But the hearing on the bill was postponed at the last minute at Councilmember Odette Ramos’ request. She said she asked for the postponement because there was a technical issue that still needs to be resolved and she wants to meet with residents who live close to the site of the proposed parking lot before council members vote on the bill.
The technical issue concerned the direction traffic should flow on a narrow alley that patrons would use to exit the proposed parking lot. The alley, called Pleasant Place, is on the west end of the property, connecting West 36th and West 37th streets. The question, Ramos said, is whether to make the alley one-way northbound or one-way southbound. That in turn will affect whether the parking spaces would be on the north side of the proposed lot or the south side, she said.
Questions about the parking lot have also been raised by advocates of the Complete Streets Ordinance signed into law by former Mayor Catherine Pugh in December 2018. They say the parking lot shouldn’t be approved because it would have a mid-block curb cut and that doesn’t comply with the Complete Streets manual that was adopted by Mayor Brandon Scott in March 2021.
“New curb cuts for parking lots are disallowed in Elm’s street typology, and the city has denied them on other projects with streets of this typology,” Jed Weeks, the interim executive director of Bikemore, wrote on Twitter. “The proposed curb cut for this parking lot hasn’t been applied for, and shall be denied under law.”
A larger issue
The plan to create the 10-space parking lot has sparked controversy because it would require demolition of the semi-detached dwellings at 3618 and 3620 Elm Ave., part of the Hampden National Register Historic District.
Tuesday’s public hearing was scheduled because the land is zoned for residences and the proposed parking lot is a conditional use that needs City Council approval, according to the city’s zoning code. A permit from the city’s Department of Transportation would be required for a curb cut. The site planner, Bohler Engineering, also needs to provide a storm water management plan that’s acceptable to the city.
Opponents of the demolition say the city would be setting a bad precedent to allow a property owner to raze houses for a parking lot. They say it would take buildings off the city’s tax roll and create a gap in the streetscape.
Proponents of the bill say The Wine Source is an asset to the community and a model employer that generously supports local causes and organizations such as the Hampden Village Center. If the store is so successful that it needs more parking and can afford to create it without seeking public funds, advocates say, the city shouldn’t be an impediment.
The larger issue, both sides acknowledge, is that Hampden has a parking shortage in the evenings and on weekends, when shops and restaurants are busy along its West 36th Street commercial strip, known as The Avenue.
The debate about a 10-space parking lot for The Wine Source, they say, is the tip of a greater problem that Hampden had even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and one that will only become more apparent as new bars and restaurants open: the need for a comprehensive parking and public transportation strategy for the area.
At least eight new restaurants have opened or are coming to Hampden, based on liquor license applications and lease signing announcements made by landlords and tenants.
Restaurateurs Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman are opening in place of Café Hon in Hampden. Other new businesses include: Urban Oyster and Kandahar Afghan Kitchen in the 900 block of West 36th Street; Warehouse Cinemas and a steakhouse called Medium Rare at The Rotunda; a new breakfast and lunch spot called Catalog Coffee at 914 West 36th Street; and a new home for Asian Taste in the 3400 block of Chestnut Avenue.
Also, a new bar serving sangrias, tapas and dessert in the 1100 block of West 36th Street (where 13.5% Wine Bar and Bar Fusion were); an all-outdoor restaurant in the backyard of a former parsonage at 3601 Hickory Avenue; and a seven-room guesthouse above Good Neighbor on Falls Road, with a full outdoor kitchen serving lunch, dinner and drinks.
Ramos said the off-street parking spaces that The Wine Source has been using will go to Foreman Wolf’s new restaurant.
“My understanding is that the current parking lot where folks park, where the Wine Source parks, is going to be for the new Cindy Wolf and [Tony] Foreman restaurant that’s going into Café Hon,” Ramos said Tuesday. “The Wine Source is going to lose that…I don’t like tearing down houses for this, but they need the parking.”
But restaurateur Tony Foreman said that information is incorrect.
Baltimore Fishbowl reached out to the restaurant group via the media query link on their website with questions about its plans and timetable, but they did not respond prior to this article’s publication. After publication, Foreman told Baltimore Fishbowl that his restaurant has not even inquired about using the parking spaces in question.
Ramos said it’s not enough to address Hampden’s parking situation in a piecemeal fashion. With so many new restaurants and other businesses opening in the area, “I think we need to do an overall parking plan,” she said.
Residents may also want to consider making Hampden a Baltimore City historic district, to help prevent loss of historic buildings not currently protected by local landmark designation, said Eric Holcomb, executive director of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).
CHAP currently has no authority to review proposals to demolish buildings such as the houses on Elm Avenue, because Hampden isn’t a local historic district the way Woodberry is, he said. “This could be the thing that triggers it.”
Feeling the effects
David Wells, the owner of The Wine Source, is already feeling the effects of new businesses coming to Hampden.
In an interview at his store on Wednesday about the proposed Elm Avenue parking lot, Wells said he hasn’t been told exactly who might be taking over the spaces he currently leases and offers to his patrons.
But he said he was warned that The Wine Source would lose at least some of its off-street parking spaces when new restaurants open on The Avenue, and that’s why he wants to create a parking lot on Elm Avenue specifically for customers of The Wine Source.
In his first public remarks about the controversy, Wells said his 33-year-old business has been at its current 9,700-square-foot location, 3601 Elm Avenue, since 2001. Before that, he said, it was a tenant at The Rotunda, from 1990 to 2001. He said he started The Wine Source after 17 years with Giant Food, which also had a store at The Rotunda for many years. He has 35 employees on his staff.
Wells said he was been aware of a parking issue in Hampden for years, because he can see the cars that line up for a parking space outside his store in the evenings and on weekends. As a business owner, he said, he felt obligated to try and address that situation by securing more off-street spaces to supplement the eight spaces on his property.
“Parking has really become an issue over the years,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’ve heard consistently from people, it’s: When are you going to do something about the parking?”
The parking lot across Elm Avenue from his store is known as the Bank of America lot because it was owned by the Bank of America, which had a branch at 902 West 36th Street. Before he had an arrangement to use the lot, Wells said, Wine Source customers would sometimes park across the street and get towed, or come out of the store and find a tow truck operator about to drive off with their cars.
“Bank of America would tow people,” he said. “What they would do is put a tow truck in the alleyway where you couldn’t see them and, Friday afternoons between 4 and 7, they would just sit there. When a person would pull into a bank spot and come into Wine Source, they would come out and their car would be up in the air and [they would be told] ‘For a couple hundred dollars, I’ll drop your car.’ ”
Wells said he reimbursed customers forced to pay towing fees.
“We covered that for years,” he said. “If you’re shopping in the store and that happens to you, we’ll make it right. I’ve spent thousands of dollars in towing fees for people. It’s not their fault. If you’re not familiar with the area and you see that parking lot and you’re going to run in and get a six-pack and leave, well, it’s not really marked all that well. It was predatory towing.”
Bank never reopened
The situation changed during the COVID pandemic. Wells said Bank of America closed its brick-and-mortar locations in Maryland starting in March 2020, as part of the state-mandated lockdowns during the public health crisis, and never reopened its “financial center” on West 36th Street.
That’s when Wells negotiated an arrangement to allow his customers to use the bank lot in the evenings and on weekends, since Bank of America didn’t need the spaces associated with its shuttered Hampden branch. He said the property has about 35 spaces and is now controlled by Royal Farms, a privately-owned company that has its headquarters one block from The Wine Source, at West 36th Street and Roland Avenue.
Wells said he has an agreement with Royal Farms President and CEO John Kemp that allows his customers to use the former bank lot in the evenings and on weekends, as marked on signs at the lot. Royal Farms reserves some of the spaces for use during weekdays, according to other posted signs.
Wells said his arrangement is on a month-to-month basis, which means the agreement can be terminated “at any point,” and then his customers wouldn’t be able to use the lot the way they can now.
He said he has been told that The Wine Source may lose some or all of the 35 spaces as new restaurants open nearby in buildings that Royal Farms controls and the new tenants seek to reserve spaces in the Bank of America lot for their patrons.
“That’s already been explained to me: Those folks are going to need a place to park,” he said. “I have already been put on notice that, these spaces remaining, we’re going to designate some for those restaurants, and what you pay will be prorated…We’re going to lose some of it, I’m sure…The restaurants are going to take priority.”
Besides the new Foreman Wolf restaurant at 1002 West 36th Street, two dining spots will be in the former David’s Inc. retail space in the 900 block of West 36th Street: Kandahar Afghan Kitchen, which is already open, and Urban Oyster, which has a hearing before Baltimore’s liquor board next week. Wells said he doesn’t know when he might lose parking spaces.
‘Can the City help?’
In response to a previous Baltimore Fishbowl article about the situation, a reader named Matthew Eshleman asked on Facebook whether anyone in city government can do anything to help The Wine Source hold on to the spaces in the Bank of America lot. (This is the kind of “do it now” problem, others note, that former Mayor William Donald Schaefer would have addressed personally.)
“I agree that demolishing home for parking is a bad precedent,” Eshleman wrote. “One of the drivers is the loss of sharing the other lot. Can the city help facilitate the agreement to renew instead of expire?”
The Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) is a quasi-public agency that has a business retention effort aimed at helping companies thrive in Baltimore. Ramos said the BDC generally hasn’t been active in Hampden because it’s considered a healthy business district, but BDC does support her bill to create a parking lot for The Wine Source.
Wells said he would welcome any additional assistance that BDC could provide in helping him retain spaces on the Bank of America lot.
“That would be the perfect solution, for all interested parties to come to the table and say what can we do that meets everyone’s needs in a fair and timely manner?” he said.
BDC president Colin Tarbert did not respond to a request for comment on what his agency could do to help The Wine Source.
Open to discussion
A hands-on businessman who is at the store six days a week, Wells is well-liked by both customers and employees. He lives in Roland Park and said he’s sometimes mistaken for the owner of Wells Liquors on York Road but has no connection to that business. Now 69, he said Giant Food was a good training ground for a career involving customer service. He said he tries to run The Wine Source like another family-owned business that he admires, Wegmans.
Reached just before lunchtime on Wednesday, Wells stopped what he was doing and agreed to an interview, without a prior appointment. He said he was happy to answer questions about the parking lot proposal but he declined to be photographed. He said he would like an opportunity to meet with neighbors and listen to their concerns if Ramos organizes a meeting, and he offered his store as a meeting place.
“I’d like to leave something that is not an eyesore…if there’s a way to enhance it, do it properly with landscaping,” he said. “The community will have to live with it, and I am more than open to listen to their suggestions.”
In the works for seven years
Wells said his plan to raze two houses for a parking lot is not a recent idea. In fact, he said, it has been in the works for seven years. He said he bought 3618 Elm Ave. in 2016 and he bought 3620 Elm Ave. in 2022. According to state land records, he paid $250,000 for 3618 and $300,000 for 3620. He referred to the entire parking lot project as a “million-dollar undertaking.”
For the house he bought in 2016, he said, the sellers were an elderly husband and wife. He said he offered to allow them to live in their house rent free until the end of 2018 if they would sell it to him. He said the wife died within that two-year period and the husband died about two years later.
The husband “stayed there until he died,” Wells said. “I never got a penny of rent from anybody for anything, and I let him stay there. I don’t recall when he passed away, but he lived at least another two years [after his wife’s death]. The guy stayed there until he drew his last breath and I never charged him anything. Why would I do that? The guy is at the end of his life. This home is all he knows, and to force a guy to go out, I just was not going to do that.”
Wells said he has never been in either house on Elm Avenue and he wasn’t able to say when they were built without looking it up. He said he knows 3618 has a dirt floor in the basement.
He said he hasn’t seen any written records that state either one has been condemned by the city, even though some people have indicated they are. The city’s website doesn’t show either 3618 or 3620 Elm Ave. as being condemned.
The curb cut issue
As for the curb cut question, city planner Martin French said that’s an issue for the city’s Department of Transportation to address. In terms of process, French said, a decision on whether to grant permission for a curb cut can be made after the City Council decides whether to approve the parking lot as a conditional use of the land.
Weeks, Bikemore’s interim executive director, contends that even if the council approves the parking lot as a conditional use, a midblock curb cut providing entry to the parking lot would violate the Complete Streets Ordinance.
“Curb cuts introduce pedestrian conflict with crossing vehicles and additional ramps that disabled people have to navigate,” Weeks said on Twitter. “Urban village main/neighborhood streets and neighborhood corridor streets are typologies that prioritize pedestrian use and safety over conflicts like that.”
If the city’s transportation department chooses to permit the curb cut against its own codified guidance, “they will expose the city to legal challenge from every applicant they previously (rightfully) denied in this typology,” he warned. “My recommendation (short of simply not building a bad and unnecessary tiny parking lot) would definitely be having them ask their site planner to try and devise a plan consistent with the law.”
Weeks said in a separate email that Bikemore’s concern is “less this particular development and more the continued precedent setting in breaking the Complete Streets Ordinance.”
He pointed to a case at 1925-27 Aliceanna St. in Fells Point – an “urban village” typology similar to Elm Avenue’s – in which CHAP initially approved plans for a curb cut that violated the Complete Streets Ordinance and it was subsequently denied by the transportation department.”
“In my experience engineers do not know the latest standards in the city, which is partially the fault of the city for not more clearly explaining them,” Weeks said. “For example, the proposal [for Elm Avenue] also lacks the required long term bike parking spaces that have been codified since 2017.”
Up to the community
Ramos said she doesn’t have a new date for the Economic and Community Development Committee hearing, but it will be posted on the buildings.
Wells said he’s comfortable leaving the decisions about the parking lot up to the City Council, the city agencies that have to approve the plan, and the community. He said he’s doing what he can to address the parking situation. He has no alternative plans for developing the property.
“I don’t know whether this will come to fruition or not,” he said. “If…this is not going to happen, for whatever reason, I’ll sell it and move on. A parking lot would be great, I think, for the neighborhood. But if the neighborhood doesn’t feel that way, fine…The city and the neighborhood will make a decision and I will accept it with equanimity, either way it goes.”
Wells said he agrees with Ramos that Hampden needs a comprehensive plan to address its parking problems. But he doesn’t regret making the effort to find a solution for his customers.
“If you have an opportunity to improve something for your customers and you don’t try, you don’t avail yourself, you don’t take the chance, then shame on you,” he said.
“I didn’t think it would have taken this long, but we’ve been at this now seven years. This is not some corporation that comes in with a lot of money and they’re just going to throw their money around. This is just one small guy trying to listen to what his people are telling him.”
If someone owns a business and sees a problem that needs to be fixed, “you have to try,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Thanks, Ed. Balanced article that explained a lot of stuff I was wondering about and didn’t try to minimize the complications.
Hampden needs a mid-block parking garage not unlike the Hillman Garage in Annapolis – maybe a bit smaller or larger footprint depending upon parcels that can be acquired and what cost… Parking for F&B is 2 to 3 times more intense than for Retail Shops depending on food operation — i.e. sit down dining or fast casual .
What is missing from both Mr Gunts articles is a historical civic perspective When the mixed use Rotunda was built our Baltimore City Reps talked about Hampden parking congestion alleviation by building a municipal garage but this didn’t materialize Now Hampden is facing spot zoning with spill over into their community
Perhaps we need better mass transit to get people to where they want to go without using cars. We wouldn’t have a parking issue if Baltimore City had reliable mass transit.
I am entirely sympathetic to Wells’ position to want to provide services for his customers (of which I am regular). I’m also sympathetic to the Bikemore guy about setting bad precedents. But, my gosh people are lazy. Find a spot on the street. Maybe it’s a block away. You’re buying liquor. The walk is good for you. The WS staff is wonderful. They will help you to your car no matter how far. I have no sympathy for people who live in Hampden, drive to the WS and expect a parking lot. Get a granny cart, load it up, and take a walk to buy your hooch. There’s plenty of parking at Total Wine in Towson. Check out the real estate while you’re there.
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