Seeking to prevent the loss or mutilation of another historic building in Woodberry, Baltimore’s preservation commission has taken steps to add the 1916 Tractor Building to its Potential Landmark List, a designation that would help protect it from demolition or defacement for 180 days.
Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) Chairman Tom Liebel triggered the process Tuesday by asking director Eric Holcomb to schedule a public hearing for the panel to take testimony and determine whether it should place “a temporary landmark designation” on the building, part of the Clipper Mill community.
“I would like to direct the executive director to place a temporary landmark designation on the Tractor Building,” Liebel said.
In response, Holcomb set the hearing for March 10 at 1 p.m. as part of CHAP’s monthly meeting at 417 E. Fayette Street. In the meantime, Holcomb said, the building will be protected from demolition by a section of the city code that affords “protections pending decision” as soon as a sign is posted on a building to announce a public hearing.
Holcomb said the sign will be posted in the next several days. He said the “protections pending decision” clause means that “all exterior changes [to the Tractor Building] will need to be reviewed and approved by CHAP until CHAP holds a hearing and makes a decision.”
Holcomb said the act of posting a sign gives the Tractor Building the same protection from changes as the 180-day Potential Landmark listing provides, once that becomes official.
“It starts when it gets posted,” Holcomb said, referring to the sign. “We give protection once it’s posted.”
As a practical matter, “there’s no demolition allowed” before the hearing, Liebel said at the meeting. The developer would have to pull a permit, and CHAP would have to sign off on it, he explained.
The building’s owner, ValStone Partners, last year announced plans to convert the Tractor Building to 99 apartments and alarmed preservationists by showing renderings that call for its south wall to be torn down and for the roof to be removed.
CHAP set a hearing to consider temporary landmark designation at the request of two parties that were concerned about ValStone’s design approach: a group of homeowners at Clipper Mill and Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group.
Protection Not Granted Elsewhere
Potential Landmark Designation is a rarely-used measure that doesn’t require approval from any other city agency and takes effect as soon as it is authorized.
CHAP, for example, has refused to invoke the same designation to save Cab Calloway’s childhood home on Druid Hill Avenue.
This despite calls by members of Calloway’s family – and an online petition signed by 3,000 people – to protect the property from demolition, currently scheduled for sometime this winter.
CHAP did ask the Department of Housing and Community Development to postpone demolition of the block of vacant buildings that contains the Calloway house.
This request was denied by HCD, Liebel told the commission during its meeting this week.
When a building is placed on the Potential Landmark List, it means the owner cannot tear it down or otherwise alter its exterior without receiving approval from CHAP for a period of six months.
Liebel said he asked for temporary landmark designation as a way to acknowledge that the Tractor Building is a “significant industrial landmark” in the city and “to make sure that we have the ability to influence the final design direction of the project.”
Once the building is a temporary landmark, the developer will “not be able to get [a] building permit without coming to CHAP” and getting its approval, Holcomb explained.
Plans to Reconfigure
Located on Clipper Park Road across from Woodberry Kitchen, the Tractor Building was used to erect large machinery when the property was a working mill, and is now used for parking.
Distinguished by its thick masonry walls, cavernous interior and seven large roof monitors, it’s the last historic building at Clipper Mill that hasn’t been adapted for new uses.
Over the past year, ValStone senior managing director Larry Jennings has been working with a different city review board, the Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP), to obtain approval for the 99-unit apartment complex he wants to build.
Instead of retaining the building’s entire shell, Jennings and his architects have proposed constructing a “building within a building” that would contain the apartments, in part by removing the overhead roof and at least one wall.
They’ve also proposed a parking deck just west of the Tractor Building.
Residents at Clipper Mill have argued that Jennings’ approach isn’t consistent with the Planned Unit Development zoning legislation in place for their community. They point to language in the PUD that calls for new buildings to be “compatible with the historic character” of surrounding structures.
The Commercial Angle
The residents have also expressed concerns about a company ValStone chose to work with on the Tractor Building last year, Commercial Development of Hanover.
Headed by Kevin Johnson, Commercial is the same firm that proposed a “building within a building” on the Hendler Creamery property in East Baltimore.
Johnson’s company gutted the historic creamery and then abandoned the site without finishing the project – or even cleaning up the piles of rubble.
Jennings said in an email message after the CHAP meeting that “Commercial is no longer involved” in the Tractor Building project. “They have no financial involvement in any form,” he wrote.
Adding to community concerns is that Jennings ex-wife, Katherine Jennings, tore down two historic millworkers houses on Clipper Road last May after her representative, Chris Mfume, indicated the houses would be incorporated into a new residential development on the site.
Those buildings had no landmark protection.