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

Developer Larry Jennings won a final public battle to convert Woodberry’s Tractor Building to apartments when Baltimore’s Planning Commission twice voted 8 to 0 on Thursday to approve the development plans.

The Planning Commission was the last of several city boards the developer needed to satisfy in order to obtain building permits for the conversion, estimated to cost $32 million to $35 million.

Jennings’ group, Valstone Partners, already had received approval from Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation and the Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel.

The conversion plan has been controversial because it calls for the roof and south wall of the building at 2039 Clipper Park Road, which dates to 1916, to be removed so Valstone can construct a seven-level, 98-unit residential complex within the remaining walls.

Plans by Marren Architects and Design Collective call for the “building within a building” to contain five levels of apartments over two levels of parking, with some retail space at street level. The plan also includes a garage that would be screened in mesh and constructed on a parking lot just west of the Tractor Building.

The Tractor Building is the last major mill building in Woodberry’s Clipper Mill community that hasn’t been recycled for contemporary uses.

Opponents have challenged the design approach on the grounds that it doesn’t preserve enough of the 104-year-old building’s exterior and doesn’t meet the requirements of a 2003 Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning ordinance passed to control development at Clipper Mill.

They have argued that the building-within-a-building and the proposed garage are major amendments to the PUD legislation and need to be approved by the City Council, not just the Planning Commission.

At yesterday’s hearing, one resident of a contemporary house on Eric Schaefer Way, just south of the Tractor Building, said he thought the project was an “abomination” that would adversely affect property values on his street.

Millrace Condominium resident Jessica Meyer and townhome resident Christopher Whips said they thought Valstone’s plan constituted a major change to the PUD because the original plans for Clipper Mill never showed a garage next to the Tractor Building on Clipper Park Road.

But the city’s planning department staff has treated the proposed development as a minor amendment to the PUD, saying it requires approval from the Planning Commission but not the council.

Eric Tiso, Land Use and Urban Design Division Chief for the planning department, told the commissioners yesterday that Jennings’ proposal isn’t considered a major change to the legislation largely because it doesn’t violate any height limits and the 98 apartments don’t put the total number of residences at Clipper Mill over the limit allowed by the PUD. He also noted that parking is an approved land use in the PUD.

Sean Davis, chair of the Planning Commission, told Meyer that the board’s role isn’t to second-guess CHAP or UDAAP in terms of judgments about architecture. “We cannot supersede either CHAP or UDAAP from a design standpoint,” he said. “We’re focused on land use and whether or not land use is appropriate.”

There was a question about whether the plans should have been reviewed by the Maryland Historical Trust, as stipulated in the 2003 PUD legislation, but Tiso said the Trust declined to review them.

In the virtual hearing yesterday, the panel members were asked to take two votes.

First, they were asked to vote on whether the proposal before them was a minor amendment to the PUD or a major amendment. Second, they were asked to vote on whether they approved the proposed design.

They voted 8 to 0 to say they considered the proposal a minor amendment, and then voted 8 to 0 again to approve the development plans. Their votes mean that the design will not be referred to the City Council for further action and the developer can move to the construction phase.

According to Jon Laria, the attorney for Valstone, the developers timetable calls for construction to begin in the spring or summer of 2021 and be complete by the fall of 2022.

Meanwhile, a bill to designate Woodberry as Baltimore’s next local historic district is moving ahead, with a final vote by the City Council expected later this month. If passed by the council, the legislation would then go to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s desk.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.