Another preservation controversy is brewing in historic Woodberry, just as residents are deciding whether to have their area designated a city historic district.

This time it involves the Tractor Building, a former 19th-century mill partially converted to residences and commercial space near the Woodberry MTA Light Rail stop and one of the last undeveloped properties in the Clipper Mill community.

The Tractor Building’s owner, Valstone Partners, announced plans earlier this year to convert the property to 99 apartments, with Commercial Development serving as the for-fee developer.

The group, headed by Larry Jennings, is tentatively scheduled to present preliminary designs next week to Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP) as part of the process of getting a building permit.

The plans drawn up by Marren Architects call for retaining three sides of the historic Tractor Building but removing the massive roof, with its seven large light monitors, and most of the south wall, and then creating a “building within a building” to house the new apartments and street-level commercial space.

Drawings indicate the new building would rise above the Tractor Building’s shell and appear as a contemporary structure emerging from the original structure. Plans also call for a parking garage just west of the Tractor Building, where a surface lot is now.

Some residents who have seen the preliminary renderings are questioning whether the proposed project is “historic” enough to be appropriate for their community, where a series of mill buildings have been sensitively preserved and adapted for new uses in the 21st century.

They point to language in the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning law passed in 2003 to guide new development in Clipper Mill. The legislation has a clause on “historic compatibility” that says that the developer “will design and construct new buildings that are compatible with the historic character of the site as defined by the Maryland Historical Trust and the National Park Service.”

Jessica Meyer, a resident of the Millrace Condominiums at Clipper Mill and treasurer of its board, the Millrace Council of Unit Owners, said she believes the plans for the Tractor Building and adjoining garage are “not compatible with the historic character.” She noted the PUD law is a legal document and not just a guideline or recommendation.

The Millrace Condominiums is one of two groups that have hired attorney John Murphy to ensure whatever happens to the Tractor Building follows the law. The other is The Homes at Clipper Mill, which includes the Overlook houses on a hill above the Tractor Building and brick-faced townhouses across the street from the Tractor Building.

The primary issue is “taking the roof off,” Meyer said. “That’s a significant change. All the other buildings were restored very painstakingly, so the roof was intact… This is a big departure from the original vision for the neighborhood.”

Meyer said she bought a residence in Clipper Mill 13 years ago because she liked its historic character and was under the impression that strict controls were in place to retain its scale and ambiance, including zoning protections and review procedures involving the city, state and federal governments.

“Fifteen years ago, it was nothing. Nobody knew what was back here,” she said. “But it’s been wildly successful because of the zoning controls. For someone to come in now and say let’s jam more homes in here, that’s not right.”

The Tractor Building, whose name derives from its previous use for storing tractors, is one of the largest buildings in the complex. It’s a long, cavernous, shed-like structure that sets the tone for the other buildings all around.

Meyer wants to see it restored as meticulously as the other Clipper Mill buildings have been.

The work completed by the previous developer, Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, shows it’s possible to recycle historic mill buildings without removing the roof and eliminating walls, she said. “It can be done. It’s expensive, but it can be done. You shouldn’t take on a project if you can’t do it correctly.” 

Murphy has written to city Planning Director Chris Ryer, Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) Director Eric Holcomb and others to voice his clients’ concerns about the latest plans, asking CHAP to add the Tractor Building to the city’s preliminary landmark list so that no demolition can begin until plans are reviewed. He also asked UDAAP not to approve the project.

One section of the ordinance, Murphy noted, calls for any plans for new construction at Clipper Mill to be reviewed by the Maryland Historical Trust, the U.S. Park Service and the full city Planning Commission instead of just UDAAP, which wields only advisory power.

Valstone’s proposal “is for an entirely new building inside the façade of the Tractor Building,” he wrote to Ryer and others. “It is our understanding the [planning department] staff has given preliminary review to this project on the basis that it is simply a modification of a proposal approved back in 2008.”

But the staff report from that proposal, Murphy said, noted any exterior restoration “would be controlled through the historic preservation tax credit processes.” Murphy said he can find no record that the Maryland Historical Trust has approved the alterations, or that it’s being carried out as a historic tax credit project, since that would likely require retaining the roof and all four exterior walls. He argues the latest plan “is not an adaption of the project approved in 2008” and should not be reviewed as such.

Murphy also pointed to the recent demolition of two historic buildings nearby in Woodberry. Residents were shocked in May when contractors hired by Jennings’ ex-wife, Katherine Jennings, tore down two 1840s-era stone millworkers’ houses on Clipper Road to make way for a five-story apartment building. The original developer for the project had told the community the houses would be saved and incorporated into the new development.

“It is fair to say that historic buildings are at risk in Clipper Mill-Woodberry,” Murphy wrote. “We ask that you require evidence that the Maryland Historical Trust has reviewed this project and that you recommend that the Planning Commission disapprove the project.”

An affiliate of Valstone Partners acquired about 17.4 acres of Clipper Mill in 2017 for nearly $19 million.

Caroline Paff of VI Development, a representative for Valstone, had not responded to questions about the new plans as of Friday morning.

This is the latest of several development-related controversies in Woodberry, which has joined Mount Vernon and Fells Point as one of the hottest preservation battlegrounds in Baltimore in recent months.

In addition to the demolition of the stone houses, Woodberry residents raised questions in July when plans were presented for another proposed development by Valstone for new residences on the Poole and Hunt lot at Clipper Mill. The plans indicate Valstone intends to stack one apartment over the other, rather than building single-unit “town homes” as specified in the PUD.

The surprise teardown of the stone homes triggered a push by the Woodberry Community Association and others to have Woodberry designated a local historic district. If Woodberry is designated, any proposed changes to buildings in the district, up to and including demolition, would have to be reviewed and approved by CHAP.

The commission is currently surveying residents and property owners to gauge their level of support. Proponents say it would give the historic buildings another layer of review and protection that they currently lack.

UDAAP is tentatively scheduled to review plans for the Tractor building next Thursday in the Benton building at 417 E. Fayette Street.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Design Collective assisted with renderings for the proposed development. A representative for the firm said Design Collective will be the architect of record for the project only if it moves forward. We regret the error.

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