Tractor Building conversion plan gets mixed reviews from city design panel

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The back of the proposed development in Clipper Mill. Rendering by Marren Architects.

A plan to construct apartments inside Woodberry’s historic Tractor Building drew both praise and criticism Thursday from Baltimore’s design review panel, which suggested the developer explore a different approach. 

Panel chair and architect Pavlina Ilieva praised developer Larry Jennings for coming up with a “very bold approach” to creating market-rate housing inside the cavernous Tractor Building, which dates from 1916 and is the last structure within Clipper Mill that hasn’t been renovated for new uses. 

But panel member Osborne Anthony questioned whether the design team is going about it in the best possible way by taking away the entire roof and other character-defining features of the building. 

“You’ve got to be a bit careful that this does not present itself as Disney-esque,” Anthony warned the development team. “You need to be a little bit more true, more respectful of what was there. You need to be a little bit more selective about the pieces you take down.”

The presentation to Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel came two weeks after attorney John Murphy sent a letter on behalf of residents asking Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation to add the Tractor Building to the city’s potential landmark list, which would protect it from demolition. 

Current residents have questioned whether Jennings’ plans satisfy the city’s 2003 Planned Unit Development zoning ordinance for Clipper Mill, which calls for new construction there to be “compatible with the historic character of the site.”

The presentation came as city planners are encouraging high-density, transit-oriented development near light rail stations, including the Woodberry stop near Clipper Mill. Just this week, the city housing department issued a building permit for a 12-unit development called Rockrose View at 2080 Rockrose Avenue in Woodberry. 

Jennings is the principal of Valstone Partners, which in 2017 acquired a tract of land in Clipper Mill in 2017 for nearly $19 million, including the Tractor Building. Valstone’s plan, drawn up by Marren Architects, calls for a new building with 99 apartments inside the shell of the Tractor Building, and a new parking deck to be built on a parking lot to the west. 

Architect Martin Marren told the panel his team is proposing to save two walls of the Tractor Building–the north and east facades–and remove the roof, including seven large light monitors, to create a seven-level “building within a building.” It would consist of two levels of parking and five levels of apartments. Some apartments would have balconies facing toward the inside of the shell, which would be painted white.

He said the new structure would rise two stories above the shell of the Tractor Building but would be set back from it by eight feet. The new construction is designed to be a “neutral background” to the Tractor Building shell to “set off the masonry and celebrate the masonry,” he said.

For the south side, Marren proposed keeping four brick arches from the original wall, so people who live or visit are “still anchored to what this used to be.”

Ilieva said she is aware of other examples in which developers have built a structure within the ruins of an older building. “The thing is, once you buy into a concept like that, it’s so powerful… there is very little room for movement.”

Ilieva questioned why many of the apartments with balconies would face north rather than south, toward Druid Hill Park. She suggested the developer “flip” the plan so the apartments with balconies face the park and not the Tractor Building’s north wall.

She also asked if some parts of the existing roof and light monitors could be retained to keep more of the building’s original profile.

Anthony focused on how much of the Tractor Building would be retained and how well the new construction would fit with it.

“The massing is just so challenging, so imposing,” he said of the new building. “You think of this as a ruin to some degree and you’re allowing this intervention to happen. Literally, you’re stripping off the roof and taking this big box and just inserting it.” 

Anthony also asked if the developer had considered keeping some of the roof, and questioned the decision to keep four arches as a remnant of the south wall. “You talk about these units having a view to the park,” he said to the architect. “Yet, in a way, we’re creating an obstacle” by leaving arches that would partially block the view.

Panel member Sharon Bradley said a good landscape design could help integrate the structures.

CHAP director Eric Holcomb, who did not attend the UDAAP meeting, said afterwards that the preservation commission will likely discuss neighbors’ request to add the Tractor Building to the city’s landmark list at its next meeting on Sept. 10.

If the building is added, any changes to the exterior, up to and including demolition, would have to be approved by CHAP. 

To the neighbors’ complaints about the “historic” fit, Chris Ryer, the city’s planning director, said Baltimore’s zoning code is not specific about what is considered historic.

 “The issue is that it’s extremely vague” he said of the code. “There’s no definition of that.”

Ryer said the residents’ lawyer, Murphy, is doing his job in raising questions about the project’s design. But, he added, “I don’t know that it will prevail in court. That’s a hard call.” 

Jennings said several times during the meeting that he would consider the panel’s comments and suggestions. At one point, he pointed out that previous owners of the Tractor Building, including developer Bill Struever, had wanted to adapt it for new uses but were unable to do so.

“I understand my challenge,” he said. 

Jennings declined to comment further after the meeting.

Ed Gunts

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