Developer razes 1840s mill homes in Woodberry, months after agreeing to preserve them

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Photo by Ethan McLeod

A city design and review panel this year gave the thumbs up for a 55-unit apartment building on Clipper Road that would, at the community’s pleading, embed two preserved 1840s stone mill homes within its design in a good-faith nod to the community’s history.

But to neighbors’ and city preservationists’ dismay, this morning those two homes were reduced to twin piles of rubble.

Jill Orlov, who lives one block up on Clipper Road, came across crews demolishing both homes this morning while walking her dogs. Both mill homes, which community members asked developer CLD Partners and architect PI.KL Studio to preserve, had been knocked down.

“I was excited about this,” Orlov said, standing before the debris and talking over the sound of an excavator. “A cool, modern-looking development with the history incorporated. That’s the way it should have happened: history and modern, working together. And they just erased that history.”

As neighbors and Councilman Leon Pinkett (7th District) looked on, the site sat unprotected with dust blowing around—potentially lead-tainted, neighbor and architect Fred Scharmen worried aloud—and no fencing or demolition notices set up. (Workers eventually pulled a chain-link gate against the curb to shield the site from bystanders.)

Two women who sat nearby in an SUV supervising the demo work declined to be interviewed. One, who identified herself as an employee of an unidentified subcontractor, replied, “talk to the developer” before rolling up her window.

Christopher Mfume, managing partner of CLD Partners, sent along a statement chalking up the decision to demolish as an economical one.

“For the past year since receiving our original demolition permit we worked extremely hard to save the existing structures, including the cost of a complete redesign of the project,” he said. “However, as discussed with the community on multiple occasions, economics would ultimately drive the final decision.”

“Unfortunately, after careful evaluation the project was not financially feasible with the existing buildings in place. We are very excited nonetheless to move this project forward and deliver on our commitment to bring more housing [to] our city.”

PI.KL Studio said late Tuesday afternoon that its principal architects, Pavlina Ilieva and Kuo Pao Lian, were unaware of the demolition plans, and “are no longer associated with this project.”

“Furthermore, as members of the Baltimore community, we respect and support the public process and our cultural heritage,” they said. “We will continue to work tirelessly to help improve Baltimore.”

Here’s what the houses looked like last June, after their wooden additions had been demolished.

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

In their place, Mfume had originally sought to build 80 units of what he called “workforce housing”—mainly studios and one-bedroom apartments going for $1,100 to $1,300 a month, intended to shelter mainly MTA Light Rail users and cyclists—but Woodberry residents cried foul when they spotted demolition notices posted on fencing near both homes.

After outcry and community meetings, Mfume agreed to keep the stone mill houses’ shells at 3511-13 and 3523-25 Clipper Road intact, using one as the frame for a lobby and the other as a potential retail space.

Mfume and PI.KL presented specs for their apartment project this past January to the city’s Urban Design and Architectural Advisory Panel, which gave them the thumbs up for the project with a few recommendations. UDAAP only serves in an advisory capacity and cannot prevent design changes from happening after a plan has been submitted.

Mfume reduced the size for his project from 80 units to about 55, saying about half will be one-bedroom apartments, 40 percent of them studios and the remainder two-bedrooms. At the time, the plans still called for retaining both stone houses on the ground floor.

A rendering of the proposed building submitted in January. Rendering via PI.KL Studio.

CLD and PI.KL Studios were due to present design updates to Woodberry Community Association members at a meeting on May 29, but WCA president Sheri Higgins said Mfume called that off because studies about the site hadn’t been completed.

He gave “no feedback to us whatsoever,” and “no notice about the planned demolition this morning,” she said.

While Mfume may have broken his agreement with the community, it would appear the demolition was city-sanctioned. Department of Housing and Community Development permit records show CLD Partners obtained an extended demolition permit in December, lasting six months. It was approved Dec. 11, 2018, and due to expire June 18.

Citing the permit, a DHCD spokesperson said Tuesday afternoon that Central Park Heights-based Demolition Man Contracting performed the demo work for the project this morning.

Pinkett stressed that the homes, while sitting in a nationally recognized historic district, aren’t protected landmarks or in a protected neighborhood designated by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, leaving them vulnerable to development.

Following this morning’s surprise demo, the councilman said he called DHCD and CHAP to send inspectors down and investigate the site, potentially to issue a stop-work order and to see if they could preserve the historic buildings’ stone and wood sitting beneath the rubble.

Photo by Ethan McLeod

In an email, Baltimore Heritage executive director Johns Hopkins, who’d stood with neighbors in their fight to preserve the homes, called today’s demolitions “a shock” and “a breach of public trust.”

Pinkett lamented what appeared to have been the crumbling of a good-faith relationship between the community and the developer. He also said it’s emblematic of broader tensions in the city between preservationists and those pushing for economic progress.

“In the city, there are great opportunities for development that appreciates the history of Baltimore, and we try to balance that while not getting in the way of progress and development,” he said. “When incidents like this happen, it makes it difficult to balance that mix between community interests and developers’ motivations.”

Scharmen, who teaches architecture and design at Morgan State University and lives around the corner, said it’s emblematic of a broader dysfunction and disconnect in the city.

“This is what happens when you trust the process in Baltimore, I think,” he said. “If you believe in the good faith on the part of all parties involved, you’ll get disappointed eventually.”

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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10 COMMENTS

  1. Do you know if an asbestos/hazardous materials survey (pre-demolition survey) was completed on any of the structures prior to any of the demolitions and/or renovation activities? Also the article references dust flying around, was the contractor not keeping the structures adequately wet in order to prevent fugitive dust?

  2. I don’t understand how someone could get a permit to demolish a 180 year old stone building in the city just so they can build yuppie dorms?

    This sounds so shady and not legal.

  3. There’s no such thing as “good faith” when dealing with developers anywhere. They only care about profit. They will happily pay their fines and collect their money when their project is finished.

    Cities and citizens must always treat developers as if everything they say is a lie.

  4. Knock the building down and Gentrify the entire neighborhood. That building was most likely built by the hands of slaves. What comes around goes around. Mfume sounds like he is of African descent. Funny thing is if you pull TV Hill and the Baltimore Sun archives many African Americans were assaulted, killed and raped in Woodberry and Hampden in the 40’s, 50’s , 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. It’s about time we get our 40 Acres and a MULE. Build young man BUILD!

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