Despite community opposition, CHAP approves apartment plan for Tractor Building

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A rendering of the apartment building planned for the Tractor Building.

Developer Larry Jennings’ plan to convert Woodberry’s underutilized Tractor Building into 99 apartments cleared a key hurdle yesterday, when Baltimore’s preservation commission voted 6 to 2 to give the project concept approval.

The action by Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) brings Jennings and Valstone Partners one step closer to obtaining building permits for a redevelopment project that will result in an investment of $32 million to $35 million in Woodberry and help preserve much of the last large mill building at Clipper Mill that hasn’t been recycled for contemporary uses.

The Tractor Building proposal will now go before the city’s Planning Commission for design approval, one of the final steps needed for the developers to get a building permit. The architects are Martin Marren of Marren Architects and Design Collective. A hearing date has not been set, but assuming the Planning Commission gives its approval in time, the developer’s timetable calls for construction to begin in the spring or summer of 2021 and be completed by the fall of 2022.

CHAP’s vote came after a two-and-a-half-hour review session, all virtual, at which local preservationists urged the panel to follow its guidelines and reject the project on the grounds that the proposed design doesn’t save enough “character-defining” features of the large industrial building at 2039 Clipper Park Road, which dates from 1916.

In the end, however, CHAP opted to overlook the fact that the design doesn’t meet all of its guidelines and focus instead on the complicated review process that the developer was asked to follow and the need to move ahead with a development project that would repair the 104-year-old building and make it a valuable part of the Clipper Mill community.

Several commissioners said they believed the panel should give the developer credit for working with a separate review group that had already approved its design, an adaptive reuse approach that involves removing the roof and south wall and constructing a building-within-a-building to provide five levels of apartments over two levels of parking.

Jennings, the senior managing partner of Valstone Partners, told the panel a story about how he visited similar-looking adaptive reuse projects in England and Germany when he went to see the Ravens lose a football game in Europe in 2017.

“There were two buildings, one in Sheffield, England, which had a similar look to the Tractor Building, and one in Potsdamer Plaza in Berlin, and someone clued me that they looked similar to the Tractor Building,” he said.

“What we found with those two buildings was an execution like building in a building. These two buildings were… probably in the same vintage as the Tractor Building. So even though I left Europe pretty disappointed that the Ravens played poorly, we had a game plan on how to deal with the Tractor Building.”

Several commissioners seemed not to recall that they had voted in March to designate the Tractor Building a “Potential Historic Landmark” precisely so they would have the authority to conduct a preservation-oriented design review separate from the meetings of the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP). The urban design panel is less focused on preserving historic buildings than CHAP and supported the adaptive reuse approach for the Tractor Building.

Tuesday’s discussion was dominated by commissioner Larry Gibson, who missed the meeting at which CHAP voted to make the Tractor Building a temporary landmark and kept asking to be told about it. Gibson said he felt bad for Jennings and the two years of design effort he put in before CHAP got involved, saying at one point that he wished CHAP hadn’t done that.

“The policy has been if you’re in the UDAAP process, there’s not going to be a CHAP review and we just sort of changed that here at the 11th hour,” he said. “There’s something wrong with this. I couldn’t get to the last meeting… but I think the decision at the 11th hour here to landmark was a mistake.”

Gibson said he didn’t feel comfortable stepping in so late in the process and asking for changes. “There’s an old saying that enough is enough, too much makes a dog sick,” he said. “I think that holding this up any further would fit in that category.”

Panel member Aaron Bryant used a football analogy in agreeing with Gibson about the way the city should treat a developer.

“It’s almost like we’re moving the goal line,” Bryant said. “It’s like you’re almost there and then suddenly we’re moving the goal line.”

“I find this building really to be a very nice adaptive reuse building,” said panel member Laura Thul Penza. “It’s not necessarily a preservation building but again, changing the rules in the middle of the road is a little difficult for me to follow as well.”

Gibson’s lament drew a rebuttal from commissioner Ann Powell, who said it seemed to her as if some commissioners forgot the action the panel took two months before. Powell and Matthew Mosca were the two panelists who voted against the adaptive reuse approach.

“I completely agree that it is very important not to go backwards on the project,” Powell said. “I guess I’m a little struck by the fact that we as a commission started this ball in play by putting it on the Potential Landmark List and so now, it’s as if we have amnesia and we’re going back and saying, ‘Oh, we didn’t mean to do that.'”

Jon Laria, the attorney for Valstone and its VS Clipper Mill LLC subsidiary, argued during the hearing that he didn’t think CHAP should have inserted itself in the review process after city planners originally told the developer they wouldn’t have to present to preservation commission. He also noted that previous developers attempted to redevelop the Tractor Building with a more preservation-oriented approach and couldn’t make the numbers work.

Laria said in an email after the meeting that the development team is happy that CHAP took the position it did.

“While we do not agree that the Tractor Building should have been given temporary landmark status in March, after over two years of development and design review by other city agencies, we are grateful to CHAP for this design approval that will allow the project to proceed,” he said. “Once redeveloped and occupied, the Tractor Building will contribute so much more to Clipper Mill than it does in its current underutilized and deteriorating condition.”

CHAP’s vote came less than two weeks after bricks started falling off the roof of the Tractor Building, damaging two cars on the street below and causing Clipper Park Road to be closed temporarily so the building could be stabilized.

The falling bricks underscored the fact that the building has been in poor condition for a long time and could continue to be a safety hazard if it’s not repaired soon. Before the bricks rained down, window panes have also fallen off the building’s north side.

One Clipper Mill resident, Ruth Cronheim, said she supported approval of the project just because she believes it shouldn’t remain in its current condition much longer.

Bringing up the falling bricks, she said she’s worried that if the current proposal is turned down, no other developer will want to work the city and the building will continue to deteriorate.

“I doubt that any developer in the future is going to want to come in here and say, ‘Oh, I’d love to go through this one-, two-, three-, four-year process and then get rejected,” she said. “By that time, the Tractor Building is going to be further deteriorated. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Is no one looking at what is going to happen to this building that we all say we love?”

Other speakers argued that the commission should push for more of the Tractor Building to be preserved, including the roof with its seven large light monitors. The plan was opposed by representatives from Baltimore Heritage and the Greater Hampden History Alliance, among others.

Sheri Higgins, president of the Woodberry Community Association, reminded the panel about two historic stone millworkers’ houses on Clipper Road that were demolished last May and how that made community residents want CHAP to be more involved in monitoring development in their neighborhood. The community didn’t seek landmark protection before those houses were razed, she said, because “we were naïve.”

Eric Holcomb, CHAP’s executive director, told the panel that the design could be approved because it doesn’t result in “substantial detriment to the public welfare” and doesn’t substantially derogate the “intents and purposes” of the City Code. He also said that not granting an authorization to proceed “would result in substantial hardship to the applicant,” based on the time and money the developers have already spent on their proposal.

Marren, the lead architect, told the panel it’s not possible both to preserve the roof and construct apartments inside the building’s shell.

One commissioner asked if the light monitors could be taken off temporarily and then put back on the roof after the “building within a building” was in place. But Marren said that even if that were technically feasible, he feared that wouldn’t come across as authentic for a residential project. Removing and replacing the monitors, he said “somehow feels wrong.”

Marren said he believes the building’s main character-defining elements are its heavy masonry walls and corbelled cornice, and “they are still going to be the face of the building when we’re done.” He estimated that more than 90 percent of the building will be retained. The south wall, he said, is not visible from Clipper Park Road, Clipper Mill’s main spine.

Jennings and Marren both promised the commissioners they won’t regret backing their approach.

“What we’re doing is thoughtful and it is respective of a building and it takes a building that is in complete disrepair and makes it an iconic building,” Jennings said.

Marren said he’s particularly proud of an interior courtyard that will be created in the space between the apartments and the existing north wall, two stories above street level. Because of this raised courtyard, “we think that people will interact with the masonry walls of this building in a new and significant way,” he said. “Over time, people are going to love it.”

Ed Gunts

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