Seeking a role in determining how Woodberry’s historic Tractor Building is renovated, Baltimore’s preservation commission has made it a temporary city landmark.
Over the objections of the building’s owner, Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) voted 5 to 4 yesterday to add the Tractor Building to its Potential Landmark List, an action that gives the panel authority to review and approve proposed changes to the building for at least the next six months.
The panel typically adds a building to its Potential Landmark List as an emergency measure, to forestall possible demolition or partial demolition.
This case is different from most others because the developer, ValStone Partners, wants to convert the cavernous building into apartments and has already completed a city-mandated design review process, by another panel, as part of its effort to obtain a building permit.
But the plans presented by ValStone call for demolition of the Tractor Building’s long south wall and removal of its roof, including large light monitors that distinguish it from other buildings in the Clipper Mill community.
After learning that ValStone’s redevelopment plans called for partial demolition of the Tractor Building, members of two homeowners’ groups at Clipper Mill asked CHAP to step in, designate it a potential landmark, and use its authority to review the developer’s plans. Yesterday’s vote was the response to that request.
John Murphy, an attorney for the homeowners, said he was pleased with CHAP’s action. “We’re glad to see it,” he said. “That’s very important to the citizens.”
Larry Jennings, ValStone’s senior managing director, had a one-word reaction to the vote: “Interesting.”
Jon Laria, ValStone’s attorney, said he would have to consult with his client to determine his next steps. “We have to decide what we’re going to do.”
Located on Clipper Park Road across from Woodberry Kitchen restaurant, near the center of the mixed-use Clipper Mill community, the Tractor Building is last large mill building there that hasn’t been redeveloped since the former Poole & Hunt mill closed decades ago. It’s currently used for parking.
CHAP wasn’t part of the earlier design review process because the Tractor Building wasn’t in a local historic district or designated a local landmark when the process began, and it didn’t have legal authority to weigh in.
The city planning department required ValStone’s redevelopment plans to be reviewed by another group, the Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP), which sees major projects outside outside CHAP’s purview but only is only advisory.
During a two-hour hearing yesterday, Laria and Jennings argued that it’s not fair for CHAP to get involved in reviewing the project so late in the process, when the development team has already spent time and money working with UDAAP and responding to that panel’s comments.
Laria said city officials instructed ValStone’s team from the beginning that it must work with UDAAP and not CHAP, and he stressed that the city never requires developers to go before both panels.
Laria argued that the development team knows the building is significant and is working to save most of its shell so it fits in with the historic nature of Clipper Mill. He noted that previous developers have been unable to move ahead with plans that called for preservation of the entire shell.
“We’ve been through an extended process that has gotten us to a point, and the question is, is it right for CHAP to do this now? Is it fair, is it right, for CHAP to come in now and potentially landmark this building?” he asked the panel.
Laria noted that both the Woodberry residents and the developer have the same goal, to put the Tractor Building back into use as a key part of the neighborhood. He warned that adding another layer of review could further delay the project, especially if what CHAP wants in terms of design is different from what UDAAP asked for.
He suggested that neighbors were attempting to “pile on” requirements for the developer not because they cared about the building, but because they wanted to give the developer a hard time.
“This is not about architectural integrity or historic preservation,” he said. “This is about land use control, a little bit of local politics and litigation, and I would encourage you not to get dragged into that. What the proponents are asking to do is basically to pile on and further regulate something that has already been heavily regulated and has led to what I think, UDAAP and others think, is a really good outcome for a building everyone agrees, wants, to be developed.”
Murphy said his clients in Woodberry question whether the developer’s proposed design saves enough of the Tractor Building. He said they bought residences in the area because they were attracted by its historic ambiance, and they don’t want to lose any of that now.
Murphy said homeowners fear that UDAAP is not as concerned about historic preservation as CHAP is, because it’s not their main charge. He also noted that the UDAAP review process does not give citizens a chance to testify in public sessions the way CHAP meetings do.
“You can argue back and forth about the feasibility of preserving this building,” he told the commission. “The only thing that I want to say to you is we want CHAP to make this decision. That’s what CHAP is for.”
Murphy said it’s conceivable the building can’t be recycled without some alterations, but the residents want the city’s preservation panel, with its expertise, to decide whether that’s the case.
“If somebody has to say, OK, the building has to be altered in order for it to be preserved, I could see that happening,” he said. “But that has to come through CHAP.”
Other speakers, including Woodberry residents and local preservationists, echoed Murphy’s points, saying they want CHAP to review the plans before any demolition occurs. City Councilman Leon Pinkett, who represents Woodberry, also said he supports adding the building to the Potential Landmark List.
CHAP’s vote means that for the next six months, the city cannot issue a construction permit for any exterior changes to the Tractor Building, up to and including demolition, unless CHAP approves the plans.
If a city council bill is introduced to make the Tractor Building a permanent city landmark within the six-month period, the building would remain on the Potential Landmark list and receive CHAP design review protection for 18 months.
The developers have several options. They could wait out the six-month potential landmark period and proceed with the plans shown to UDAAP once that period is over, if no legislation is introduced to make the Tractor Building a permanent landmark. They would still need to get final design approval from the Planning Commission in order to do that.
They could also present their current plans to CHAP and see if they get approved. If they apply by March 20, said director Eric Holcomb, they could be put on the agenda for the panel’s next meeting in April.
Following the demolition last year of two 1840s stone houses, residents of Woodberry have started the process of becoming a historic district, meaning CHAP would have to approve any changes to building exteriors.
A bill to add Woodberry has a historic district has been introduced in the city council. The planning commission has scheduled a hearing on it for March 26.
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