Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals has blocked a local developer from carrying out a previously-approved plan to convert the historic Tractor Building in Woodberry to 98 apartments.
In a 23-page opinion this week, three judges with the appeals court ruled that Baltimore’s Planning Commission was wrong to approve the proposed conversion and ordered that its action be vacated, effectively preventing the developer from moving ahead with the construction of the project as designed.
The decision marks the latest in a growing series of rulings in which judges have reversed pro-developer decisions by Baltimore’s planning commission under chair Sean Davis, a principal of Morris & Ritchie Associates, a planning firm hired by developers and others.
While other cases have been sent back to the commission because members failed to provide adequate statements documenting why they voted the way they did — “findings of fact and conclusions of law” — this ruling addressed the merits of the case at issue.
It essentially leaves the owner, an affiliate of MCB Real Estate LLC, with two options if it wants to redevelop the vacant Tractor Building: Appeal the judges’ ruling to a higher court or drop the previous plan and take a more preservation-oriented approach.
The case was brought to the Court of Special Appeals by Clipper Mill residents who were concerned that the proposed redevelopment plan didn’t do enough to preserve the “historic character” of the Tractor Building, as required in a Planned Unit Development ordinance that guides construction in the Clipper Mill community.
The appeal was filed by property owners and residents living at Clipper Mill, Jessica Meyer, Jeffrey Pietrzak, Mark Saldtich and Christopher Whipps, in addition to The Council of Unit Owners of The Millrace Condominium and the Homes at Clipper Mill Homeowners Association.
After the planning commission approved the design on June 18, 2020, the residents appealed the decision in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. The planning commission’s hearing was one of the occasions that prompted Jennings to sue Clipper Mill residents for $25 million for speaking against his plans in public – a suit that was later thrown out in court.
After the Circuit Court affirmed the planning commission’s decision, the residents filed an appeal with the Court of Special Appeals. The judges were Donald E. Beachley, Laura S. Ripken and James A. Kenney III, and Kenney wrote the opinion.
John Murphy, the attorney who represented the residents, said he was happy with the ruling.
“We were very pleased, because the main attribute of the building is its historic character,” Murphy said. “It’s probably the most historic building in all of Clipper Mill. We were very pleased with the decision …recognizing the historic importance of the building.”
P. David Bramble, the managing partner of MCB Real Estate, did not respond to a request for comment on the decision and what he plans to do next. He previously has told members of the Woodberry Community Association that he was no longer using the architect who designed the plan in question and instead would hire a different design team.
In need of renovation
Built in1916,the Tractor Building at 2039 Clipper Park Road is one of the largest structures at Clipper Mill and the last major structure on the former mill property that hasn’t been renovated for new uses. In May of 2020, parts of its roof and cornice fell off and damaged cars below, a sign of its poor condition.
Bramble is in an unusual position because he didn’t control the Tractor Building when the apartment conversion was proposed. The conversion plan was initially proposed by previous owners of the building, a team headed by ValStone Partners and principal Larry Jennings.
ValStone sold the Tractor Building and other properties at Clipper Mill to an affiliate of MCB Real Estate, MCB Woodberry Developer LLC, in 2021, after Jennings’ plan was approved by the planning commission and while the appeal process was underway. MCB essentially inherited Jennings’ conversion plan as part of the real estate acquisition and would have had many of the development approvals in place if residents hadn’t challenged the planning commission’s action.
The residents’ arguments
The chief issue in the residents’ appeal was whether the planning commission and its staff should have approved the owners’ plans to redevelop the Tractor Building and construct a two-story parking deck next to it.
According to the judges, the answer hinged on whether the panel acted “correctly” in determining if the proposed design met the objectives of the Planned Unit Development (PUD) legislation passed by the City Council in 2003 to guide construction at Clipper Mill.
In his arguments, Murphy brought up several ways the residents didn’t believe the conversion plan satisfied the legal requirements of the Clipper Mill PUD, and asked the judges to consider each one.
First, he said, the PUD requires new buildings to be designed and constructed “compatible with the historic character of the site as defined by the Maryland Historical Trust and the National Park Service.” It further states that “new construction will substantially be of brick or stone and is subject to review by the Maryland Historic Trust, the National Park Service, and the Planning Commission.”
The conversion plan by Marren Architects called for the roof of the Tractor Building to be removed to make way for construction of the 98 apartments, and for the roofline of the apartments to rise above the original roofline. It also called for one exterior wall to be removed and for a parking deck to be built on a lot next to the Tractor Building, obscuring another exterior wall. It called for new exterior walls to be clad in materials other than brick or stone.
Murphy said Marren’s design did not meet the requirements of the PUD because it called for too much of the original building to be removed. He questioned the construction of a parking garage next to the Tractor Building, saying it wasn’t part of the PUD for the proposed site. He argued that by adding 98 apartments, the developers would exceed the total number of residences allowed at Clipper Mill. He said Clipper Mill residents bought homes there relying on the PUD ordinance being properly enforced.
Murphy noted that language in the PUD legislation states that designs for construction projects at Clipper Mill must be reviewed by the Maryland Historical Trust, a state board that monitors building designs for adherence to preservation standards.
The developers never presented the Tractor Building and garage designs to the Maryland Historic Trust, in part because they weren’t seeking tax credits for historic preservation to help finance the conversion. In addition, according to city planner Eric Tiso, the Trust declined to review the project when it was asked to do so. But because a review by the Trust was a legal requirement of the PUD ordinance, Murphy said, the planning commission had no authority to waive that requirement.
Finally, for the purposes of approving the Tractor Building and parking garage designs, the planning commission treated the changes as constituting a minor amendment to the PUD, and voted on them that way.
But Murphy said the changes were so substantial that the final development plan should have been treated as a major amendment to the PUD. He noted that a major amendment must be approved by both the planning commission and the City Council, at a separate series of hearings, because approval of a major change requires introduction and enactment of a council ordinance.
At the 2020 hearing, then-City Council member Leon Pinkett said he thought construction of a garage building was “not consistent with the original PUD” and questioned whether it should be treated as a minor change.
The court ruling
In their ruling, the judges didn’t accept the residents’ objection to a parking garage, saying one could be considered even though it wasn’t mentioned in the PUD because the land is currently used as a parking lot and there would be no change in land use. They also didn’t buy the argument that 98 apartments exceeded the number of residences allowed at Clipper Mill. But they agreed with the residents’ other arguments.
The judges said the PUD requires that building designs be reviewed by the Maryland Historical Trust and that the Planning Commission can’t unilaterally ignore the wording in the PUD. “Excising the requirement or modifying it by way of interpretation is not a decision for the Commission to make,” they said. “It is a decision for the City Council.”
The judges also agreed with Murphy’s argument that the design’s incompatibility with “the historic character of the site” should not be treated as a minor change. They said the planning commission’s decision to treat the final development plan as a minor amendment was “based on an erroneous conclusion of law and not supported by substantial evidence in the record.”
In their ruling, the judges remanded the case to the Circuit Court “with instructions to [vacate] the commission’s decision and remand to the commission for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Murphy said he didn’t think going to the Maryland Historical Trust would have helped the project get approved as designed, because Marren’s plan called for the removal of so much of the original building.
He said the hopes the judges’ ruling will encourage the current developer, MCB, to adhere to the 2003 PUD language approved by the City Council and adopt a more preservation-oriented approach in any new proposal for renovating the Tractor Building.
“From the neighborhood’s standpoint, they perfectly support the rehabilitation of the Tractor Building,” he said. “It’s sitting there basically unrestored, and it’d be much better to have it restored. But our position is it has to be done consistent with its historic value.”