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Historic District Faces Development Pressure

Neighborhoodsby Ed Gunts2:50 pmDec 12, 20190

After losing two historic dwellings, Woodberry moves closer to becoming a historic district

To the disappointment of Clipper Mill property owners, the preservation board leaves the fate of the Tractor Building up in the air

Above: 1860-era photo of the Poole & Hunt Works at present-day Union Avenue and Clipper Road. At upper left, the two stone houses that were torn down can partially be seen. (CHAP)

The mill village of Woodberry came a step closer to gaining status as a Baltimore City historic district after the city’s preservation commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to support the designation.

The proposal originated with a request from the Woodberry Community Association after a development group headed by Katherine Jennings tore down two historic stone millworkers’ houses whose shells had been targeted for preservation.

The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) has a process that calls for the panel to hold two public hearings to consider a historic district designation proposal, and this week’s hearing was the second for the Woodberry proposal.

At the first hearing in October, CHAP preservation planner Walter Gallas told panel members that Woodberry property owners voted 99 to 41 in a city survey to support making the community a local historic district.

The designation still must be approved by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and the City Council before it becomes official. The next steps include public hearings before the Planning Commission and the Council. That could take several months.

Protecting the Past

When an area is designated a local historic district, it means any proposed changes to contributing buildings within the district, up to and including demolition, must be approved by the CHAP before a permit can be issued.

Preservationists say that requirement helps protect areas from inappropriate changes to or loss of historically- and architecturally-significant structures, such as Jennings’ destruction of the two stone houses on Clipper Road last May.

Woodberry is already a federal historic district, but that designation doesn’t provide the same level of protection from inappropriate development, they say.

An 1876 map of Woodberry and (below) the proposed boundaries of the historic district. (Johns Hopkins University Library and CHAP)

A 1876 map of Woodberry and (below) the proposed boundaries of the new historic district. (Johns Hopkins University Library and CHAP)

Woodberry Historic District boundaries

The proposed district, about 80 acres in all, is bounded roughly by the Jones Falls Expressway on the east, Druid Hill Park on the south, Malden Avenue and the William E. Hooper & Sons property on the west, and Rockrose Avenue on the north.

The district includes Meadow Mill, Brick Hill, TV Hill and the Clipper Mill community, and it would be Baltimore’s 37th historic district. The “period of significance” for buildings to be considered contributing structures is from 1843, the year the Woodberry factory was established, to 1956, the year that Meadow Mill ceased textile production.

Before CHAP’s vote, several property owners in Brick Hill asked for their section of Woodberry to be taken out of the proposed historic district on the grounds that it could pose a hardship to owners without offering much benefit.

Commissioners and staffers said that CHAP has a procedure in place for property owners who would experience a financial hardship in complying with the city’s preservation guidelines. They also noted that the city and state offer tax credits for historic preservation to help pay for the cost of repairs or improvements.

Tractor Building Not Protected

One issue that triggered extensive discussion before CHAP’s vote was the fate of the Tractor Building, the last large undeveloped structure in the Clipper Mill community.

Its developers, Valstone Partners and VI Development, want to convert the building to 99 apartments by removing the roof and at least one exterior wall and constructing a “building within a building” that would contain the new apartments.

Property owners accuse Mayor Young of favoring a project by his campaign treasurer (12/9/19)

Residents of two property owner groups have asked CHAP to add the Tractor Building to its Potential Landmark List. They argue that the current design review process, led by the Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP), isn’t sufficient to protect the building’s architectural integrity because preservation isn’t UDAAP’s primary concern.

They say the Potential Landmark listing, which typically lasts six months, would give the Tractor Building more protection than the UDAAP review process because CHAP will be involved and CHAP cares about preservation.

Last month, the CHAP’s chairman Tom Leibel and executive director Eric Holcomb declined to add the building to the Potential Landmark List.

Again on Tuesday they said that they did not want to pursue Potential Landmark Designation at this time.

An 1867 view of Woodberry and the Jones Falls Valley from Brick Hill. (CHAP)

A view of Woodberry and the Jones Falls Valley in 1867. (CHAP)

“A hole in the donut”

Liebel said the commission wants to see the Tractor Building protected from inappropriate changes, but he isn’t sure that Potential Landmark listing is the best way to that.

He noted that the Tractor Building falls within the proposed historic district for Woodberry, and that would give it the same design review protections as CHAP’s Potential Landmark listing as soon as it takes effect.

If the Tractor Building gets Potential Landmark listing, but fails to be designated a permanent landmark, he said, it may be excluded from the larger historic district, according to his reading of the city code. As a result, Clipper Mill could end up with a “hole in the donut.”

After a lengthy discussion between the commissioners and John Murphy, an attorney representing Clipper Mill property owners, Liebel and Holcomb said they would consult with the law department to clarify how the process would work.

They promised to discuss the issue at CHAP’s next meeting in January and possibly consider Potential Landmark listing for the Tractor Building then.

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