Developer drops out of Woodberry Station project hours after surprise demolition

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Photo by Ethan McLeod

The developer behind a once-planned 55-unit apartment building in Woodberry has dropped out of the project after contractors razed two historic stone mill homes intended to be incorporated into the building–apparently unbeknownst to the builder.

“I have notified the owners of the property that I have decided to remove myself and CLD Partners from the Woodberry Project partnership effective immediately,” said Christopher Mfume, managing partner of CLD Partners, in a statement sent out around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Hours earlier, Mfume implied that CLD was privy to the demo plans after a “careful evaluation” found the project was “not financially feasible with the existing buildings in place was.” But on Tuesday evening, Mfume said he was entirely unaware the owner of the property, Woodberry Station LLC, had ordered the 170-year-old stone structures to be torn down.

“The decision to demolish the previously existing historic properties in Woodberry was made without my prior knowledge or my consent,” Mfume said, noting that he only learned of the bulldozers operating at the site that same morning. “While I was aware that the possibility always existed for the buildings to be demolished, I was not aware that a decision had been made.”

Mfume said that had he known, he would have “gone through the proper channels and spoken directly with the Woodberry Community Association, as I have done previously.”

The project’s now-former architect, PI.KL Studios, dropped out yesterday for similar reasons. Co-principal architect Kuo Pao Lian vouched for Mfume Wednesday morning, telling Baltimore Fishbowl, “We were both in the same boat… We woke up and we went to work and I got an email saying the buildings are demolished.”

It’s unclear who gave the orders to knock the buildings down, sending dust flying and leaving neighbors aghast.

The hired contractor who did the work, Park Heights-based Demolition Man Contracting, did not immediately return a message requesting comment this morning. City officials noted the razing was entirely permitted. Department of Housing and Community Development records show CLD Partners obtained a six-month extension on its demo permit on Dec. 11, 2018, due to expire June 18.

Mfume had once planned to demolish the historic houses, but neighbors appealed successfully for their protection, saying doing so would erase a piece of the hillside mill community’s history. Woodberry, while on the National Register of Historic Places, is not a city Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation-protected district, which leaves it vulnerable to development.

Still, working closely with PI.KL, Mfume negotiated with the Woodberry Community Association and agreed to retain the shells of the 1840s mill homes.

The former mill homes as of June 2018. Photos by Ethan McLeod.

Under a plan approved by a city design and review panel in January–albeit a non-binding step in the process–CLD and PI.KL were going to build around the stones frames for 3511 and 3523 Clipper Road, retaining one as a lobby entrance and the other as a potential retail space. The building was to have 55 units going for $1,100-$1,300, roughly half of them studios, 40 percent of them one-bedrooms and the remainder two-bedrooms.

In his statement Tuesday night, Mfume nodded to that good-faith agreement between himself and neighbors, saying there was “a mutual trust born out of our desire to make the neighborhood better. I believe that trust is everything and above all I value integrity and my ability to work effectively with communities.”

Reached by phone, Mfume declined to comment further Wednesday morning, referring only back to his statement.

So who are the “owners of the property” he referenced? State business documents point to at least one name.

Katherine Jennings, wife of investor Larry Jennings Jr., is listed on Woodberry Station LLC’s articles of organization. The company’s listed address: 300 W. Pratt St., Suite 375, the same as Larry Jennings’ multi-state private equity firm, ValStone Partners, which is behind a more sprawling project nearby in Clipper Mill.

Jennings said only “goodbye” and hung up after being asked by phone about the shared address this morning.

Katherine Jennings was also previously listed as Woodberry Station LLC’s resident agent. The company changed its resident agent and office address to InCorp Services Inc. at 1519 York Road in Lutherville in 2017.

No one answered a landline at the Jennings’ home in North Baltimore this morning.

Lian, whose architecture firm is still working with CLD Partners on a Highlandtown project, confirmed Katherine Jennings’ involvement, saying, “our purview was always to discuss anything about the project with Chris and Kathy.” He confirmed there are other partners on the project, but said he could not disclose who.

Lian said they had “fought for the project” for months leading up to Tuesday’s demolitions, and lamented the loss of a community-negotiated design that would have preserved the buildings.

Looking forward, he said with CLD Partners and PI.KL now out of the picture, the partners behind Woodberry Station LLC could bring on a new team.

“If they were to replace the team with a new developer and a new architect, it’s almost like those guys could come in and wipe their hands clean. They’re just being asked to come and develop on a clean site now.”

But it will take time, as CLD Partners and PI.KL Studio learned over the last year.

“It’s gonna have to come back out to public scrutiny now,” Lian said. “It’s not like just because they took the building down means they can start building tomorrow.”

Woodberry Community Association president Sheri Higgins said Wednesday that neighbors still “need time for the dust to settle” on the matter. Only after a new developer or “point person” for Woodberry Station LLC emerges “will we be able to determine where the project stands,” she said.

For now, what remains are twin piles of stone, wood and other debris sitting on the hillside of Clipper Road. Higgins and Councilman Leon Pinkett (7th District) said Tuesday morning that they were hoping to salvage some of the materials.

Jill Orlov, who lives one block away and discovered the working demolition crews while walking her dogs, grieved the loss of the historic structures.

“They’ve taken away history–170 years, from the 1840s, gone. Two piles of rubble. Never, ever coming back.”

This story has been updated.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
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7 COMMENTS

  1. Seems this developer has a degree of integrity so the drop out is appropriate.

    Not to fear. I’m sure the void will be filled by another.

    Maybe a dollar store, a CVS, Dunk’n Donuts or such.

    Heritage has little value today.

  2. By the way, they (ValStone) will be tearing down 2005/2007 Druid park drive too. Not as historic as those two homes but still crappy to make room for a driveway for large complexes that the area doesn’t have parking for.

    Word of advice for all Woodberry residents… do not trust valstone.

  3. I would love to see this group barred from any projects in Baltimore.

    Thank you Ethan.

    • The Jennings have enough money to just wait until everybody forgets what happened. Then they’ll resume their dastardly ways and rake in more. The rich face few consequences for their actions.

  4. Doesn’t make sense. In the first article on the demolition, it says he sent a statement siting financial feasibility. Now he’s saying he didn’t know. Which is it?

  5. Based on the new plans for the property that were revealed to the community this evening, I would strongly encourage the new architecture firm to also drop out of the project. Given the strong dislike from the Woodberry community, I cannot imagine that the project will bring good will or good press to anyone that gets involved. Although I do appreciate that Gordon came to present to us and answer our questions, I am not sure he realized what he was getting into.

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