The owner of The Wine Source in Hampden is seeking approval for the demolition of residences at 3618 and 3620 Elm Ave. to build a parking lot. Photo by Ed Gunts.

A long-simmering debate about parking in Hampden will get a public airing this week when Baltimore City Council members hold an in-person hearing about legislation that would permit demolition of two semi-detached dwellings on Elm Avenue to make way for a parking lot.

The council’s Economic and Community Development Committee is scheduled to meet in City Hall on Tuesday to consider a bill that would permit “the establishment, maintenance and operation of an open off-street parking area” in place of the residences at 3618 and 3620 Elm Ave.

The duplex is half a block north of Hampden’s 36th Street shopping district, known as The Avenue. The bill, No. 22-0332, was requested by Wonder Dog Enterprises LLC, the owner of The Wine Source, a store across the street from the houses targeted for demolition. Baltimore’s Planning Commission voted 7 to 0 to approve the bill during a public hearing in February. 

The application is one of several from property owners seeking to demolish buildings in Hampden and Medfield, two areas where property values have remained strong during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A mid-block residence at 1212 Union Ave., mid-demolition. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Owners are almost finished tearing down a mid-block residence at 1212 Union Ave., as part of a subdivision of the property that has been approved by the planning commission. Last fall Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel reviewed a proposal to raze the Free State Bookbindery at Elm Avenue and 32nd Street, known for attracting migratory chimney swifts, to make way for a 155-unit apartment building with 242 parking spaces – a plan that drew fierce community opposition and has not moved ahead.

One reason Hampden routinely sees demolition requests, preservationists say, is because it hasn’t been designated a local historic district, where property owners would need city approval to make changes to the exteriors of their buildings, up to and including demolition.

As areas such as Federal Hill and Woodberry become historic districts, preservationists say, developers and real estate investors see non-designated areas such as Hampden and Medfield as areas where they can operate with fewer restrictions on what they can do, and fewer layers of design review. 

The Elm Avenue application triggered public hearings because a parking lot in that location is considered a conditional use under the city’s zoning code, and that requires City Council approval.

Customer parking

At the Planning Commission hearing on Feb. 9, city planner Martin French and a Wine Source representative named Jennifer Lankford told panel members that store owner David Wells wants to raze the houses to create additional parking for customers.

The Wine Source currently offers parking across Elm Avenue on nights and weekends at a surface lot that’s owned by a different party. Lankford told the commission that the landlord has said that arrangement will be “sunsetting” and the spaces will no longer be available to Wine Source customers the way they are now. French said demolition of the two houses will result in the creation of 10 parking spaces on a 36 foot by 162 ½ foot lot, to supplement the eight spaces they now have in front of the store at 3601 Elm Avenue.  

City Councilmember Odette Ramos, who introduced the bill for Wonder Dog Enterprises and The Wine Source, said in a statement read to the panel that she supports the applicant’s plan to raze the houses and use the parcel as a parking lot to compensate for the spaces it will be losing.

“The owner of The Wine Source, a very reputable business in the heart of Hampden, has requested these two properties have a conditional use for parking. They are currently zoned R-6. The spaces will be a new surface parking lot for the multitude of customers that come to enjoy the product and hospitality at The Wine Source. The Wine Source’s current parking lot is likely being taken away from them. This is a very popular spot and Hampden has parking pressure in the entire neighborhood. Adding more [parked] cars on the street when the lot is taken away will add to the parking pressure in the area.”

The condition of the two houses is another factor, Ramos said in her statement.

“While it is unfortunate to have to demolish two homes for parking, these homes are in bad condition, in fact condemned, and would take significant resources to rehabilitate into single- or multi-family homes,” Ramos said. “I look forward to continuing to work on our multiple initiatives to housing elsewhere in the neighborhood and in several parts of my district that need it most….I look forward to your support.“   

French told the panel that the area is part of the Hampden National Register Historic District, but that designation alone doesn’t prevent demolition of property. He said the planning staff determined that the applicant has met the city’s requirements for creating an off-street parking lot on the property and that the creation of a parking lot “would not be injurious to this immediate area,” and it recommends approval of the bill.

“This could be a vacant lot whether or not this becomes…off-street parking,” French told the commission. “There is nothing to prevent the demolition of the houses and building that is on 3618 and 3620 at the present time under the Hampden National Register Historic District designation. Planning staff certainly consider it perhaps an unfortunate thing that housing might give way to an off-street parking space provider, but that is something for the commission and the City Council to weigh.”

Planning commissioner Eric Stephenson asked French how the planning staff can say the houses contribute to a national historic district but then conclude that their demolition and replacement with a parking lot won’t have an adverse effect on the character of the neighborhood. “How do you reconcile those two statements?”

“It’s a matter of the relative size of this parking lot in relation to the larger context of the Hampden National Register Historic District, quite frankly,” French said.

The Wine Source’s parking area. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Joshua Spokes, a Woodberry resident and customer of The Wine Source, spoke against the parking lot proposal, saying he thought it would set a bad planning precedent.

“I do understand why this lot has been proposed, because it’s a very popular store, very well-liked in the area,” he said.

At the same time, he said, demolition has adverse effects on neighborhoods by creating gaps in the streetscape and taking buildings off the tax roll.

“I’m worried because every building that’s been torn down for a road or a parking lot over the past 60 years leaves a hole in both the built environment of our city and the city balance sheet,” he said. “My concern is that the continual replacement of buildings with parking lots and…roads reduces the tax base and contributes to the higher overall tax base of the city.”

Spokes warned that others may want to follow the example set by The Wine Source, leaving even more gaps in the streetscape.

“In addition to the financial considerations, we have to consider our built environment,” he said. “My concern here isn’t with necessarily the demolition of one building but with…the continual demolition of homes and businesses,” he said.

“Baltimore already has the scars of freeways carved into neighborhoods and along potential natural spaces like the Jones Falls Expressway. Parking lots add more curb cuts that create conflict zones with pedestrians and they also add to urban heat islands which increase the heat in the summer…While this is on a small scale, I do wonder what precedent a variance like this sets for other businesses potentially to purchase nearby homes and create parking lots.”

The Wine Source “is a fantastic establishment that’s been in the area since long before me, and from what I’ve heard they’re a model employer. One parking lot isn’t necessarily going to demolish the tax base and deter pedestrian traffic in this area, but I feel like it does push this area in the wrong direction…

“Hampden’s resilience as a place that people love to be doesn’t come from its accessibility by car,” he said. “It’s an adaptable space with lots of relatively small, flexible commercial spaces and it’s a unique place in the city…Any small business would be lucky to be on this strip because of its density and walkability, and not in spite of it.”

Pros and cons

The parking lot proposal has also sparked controversy on social media, with some residents saying a parking lot is not the best use for the land and others saying The Wine Source has been a good neighbor and deserves to get what it wants.

On Reddit, one area resident called for customers to “Boycott Wine Source If They Build More Parking,” a thread that drew more than 150 comments.

“Hampden already has a reputation of being white and exclusive, and taking away housing to build more unnecessary parking for its overwhelmingly white and well-to-do patrons isn’t helping to change that perception,” argued the poster u/symtech991.

Other opponents of the parking lot say tearing down the duplex for a “bland concrete slab” would contribute to the erosion of the fairly dense and walkable urban fabric that makes Hampden so pleasant and interesting. They say housing is needed in areas such as Hampden, and that it would be a bad precedent for city officials to support legislation that enables a property owner to tear down housing for a parking lot. They say the proposal is part of a throwaway mindset that weakens neighborhoods.

“Surface parking is a garbage land use that contributes to dead blocks,” said one commenter, bmore in Remington.  

“Reducing building stock for impermeable surfaces harms communities,” said another, noahsense. “Removing housing, even one or two at a time, makes all housing…more expensive.”

A model employer

Supporters of the parking proposal outnumber the opponents, at least on Reddit. They say the City Council should approve the request because The Wine Source is a successful, well-run business that provides jobs and contributes to Hampden’s vitality. They say it’s good that the store is so busy it needs more parking. They note that the residences in question are in poor condition and likely would be torn down anyway. They warn that customers may shop elsewhere if they can’t find convenient parking.

“I worked at The Wine Source for years during college,” said one commenter, YoOmarComingMan. “Dave [Wells, the owner] is a great employer. He has been in Hampden likely longer than those b****ing about this. Before that spot, they were in the Rotunda. This is all before Hampden became the “cool” spot to live in for the hipsters and yuppies and back when it was a poor neighborhood. So he invested in this neighborhood when it was a risk. On top of that, he donates product and money to tons of charitable causes. If he wants to build a parking lot, so be it.”

“I am very much for making our city better for non cars but this seems completely fine and not at all excessive,” said another commenter, YoYoMaMa. “Plus, as far as businesses go, [The Wine Source] seems pretty decent to people. I have known a few people that have worked there and they’ve had nice things to say.”

“You’re mad at a local business actually having business?!” said a third, succotash_witch. “We need small businesses to do well here.”

“This is needed,” agreed a commenter named DfcukinLite. “This isn’t the hill to die on.”

Still others can see both sides.

“I’m really torn about this,” said a Reddit commenter whose name was deleted. “I agree we don’t need more parking in Hampden in general, but as someone who has gotten stuck pretty often on my way home from work behind all the people double parked on Elm loading booze into their cars, I kind of want The Wine Source to figure out a better solution. But yeah, Hampden needs to be more friendly towards those of us who actually live here, and that does not mean more traffic and more parking and more tourism.”

The hearing on the Elm Avenue parking lot application is scheduled to begin at 2:05 p.m. on March 28 in the Clarence “Du” Burns Council Chambers at City Hall, 100 N. Holliday Street. Citizens can also participate via Webex. 

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Ed Gunts

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

2 replies on “The Wine Source’s proposal to demolish dwellings to build a parking lot sparks debate in Hampden”

  1. Hampden needs a mid-block parking garage not unlike the Hillman Garage in Annapolis – maybe a bit smaller or larger footprint depending upon parcels that can be acquired and what cost… Parking for F&B is 2 to 3 times more intense than for Retail Shops depending on food operation — i.e. sit down dining or fast casual .

  2. What’s missing from this article is the failure of civic planning regarding adequate parking in the greater Hampden area Noise was made about a parking garage to compensate for the Rotunda’s massive complex but it never materialized . So unchecked development has continued to the detriment of both the current Hampden residents and businesses. Developers have “carte blanche” in our city .

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