Baltimore’s housing department has issued a permit for construction of 30 “stacked” townhouse units in Woodberry even though the developer, following a court challenge, hasn’t received all of the approvals required by law to obtain the building permit.
The agency has also issued a demolition permit to developer Larry E. Jennings, allowing him to raze two existing houses adjacent to the construction site.
The demo permit was issued even though the City Council has approved legislation to make Woodberry a local historic district, a designation that would prevent demolition unless approved by the Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation (CHAP) at a public hearing.
7/22 UPDATE: This afternoon CHAP sent out a message to Woodberry residents that the community would become a local historic district next Monday – or 12 days after the housing department approved the permit to demolish the two buildings on Druid Park Drive. (See below.)
All of these developments come 14 months after Katherine Jennings, the ex-wife of the same developer, tore down historic stone millworkers’ houses a block away after promising residents that the structures would be incorporated into a new apartment building. (The promise was explicitly made at a public meeting by her then-associate, Chris Mfume, son of U.S. Representative Kweisi Mfume.)
The Jennings Connection
According to its website, the Department of Housing and Community Development issued a construction permit for the stacked townhouses at 2001-2003 Druid Park Drive last week.
(“Stacked” townhouses are rowhouses divided into two-story units, one over the other, with separate doors made to appear like one building.)
The agency also issued a demolition permit for the two houses, 2005 and 2007 Druid Park Drive.
The construction permit is valid until July 13, 2022, and the demo permit is valid until January 15, 2021.
Both permits both have ties to the same developer: Larry Jennings.
Jennings is the senior managing director of Valstone Partners and a former commissioner at the Baltimore Housing Authority.
The houses targeted for demolition are owned by a Valstone affiliate, VS Clipper Mill LLC. They are duplex units, connected by a party wall, and appear to be vacant.
ADDITIONAL BREW COVERAGE:
Approval Nullified by Judge
The housing department’s issuance of the construction permit has raised questions within the Woodberry community because the townhouse site is part of a larger parcel governed by Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning legislation.
According to city law, the property owner needs the PUD legislation to be amended in order to use the land for anything other than parking, including residences.
Last November, the Baltimore Planning Commission approved plans for the 30 townhouses, despite testimony from Clipper Mill residents who opposed the project.
Residents challenged the townhouse plan on the grounds that it would result in the loss of 47 parking spaces in a community where parking is scarce.
They also argued that townhouse construction would be a major amendment to the Clipper Mill PUD and would need City Council approval, in addition to approval from the Planning Commission.
Last month, after the residents sued Jennings and the city, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Videtta A. Brown invalidated the Planning Commission’s 2019 decision, sending the matter back to the panel for further action.
Her action nullified the approval that the developer needed under the PUD legislation to obtain a construction permit for the Poole and Hunt lot.
In her ruling, Brown said the Planning Commission acted improperly because it didn’t complete a “findings of fact” and “conclusions of law” document showing that the panel rendered its decision based on legal grounds and public testimony.
The commission was scheduled to discuss the judge’s ruling at its July 9 meeting, but never had the discussion. The matter is currently scheduled for its July 31 meeting.
Bill not signed by Mayor
Housing department spokesperson Tammy Hawley said she would ask an associate to check into the matter.
The associate, Kevin Nash, confirmed that the townhouse construction permit was issued, but he did not say how the developer was able to get the permit when the Circuit Court judge had invalidated the Planning Commission’s decision.
Nash also confirmed that a demolition permit was issued for 2005 and 2007 Druid Park Drive. He explained that once the bill to make Woodberry a local historic district is enacted and goes into effect, permit applications for demolition and exterior renovations will be forwarded to the preservation commission for review and approval.
But in this case, he said, “the legislation for Woodberry to become a historic district has not yet been enacted into law” because the bill has not yet been signed by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
Young has until next Monday, July 27, to approve or reject the bill. If he does neither, the bill will automatically go into effect at 5 p.m. So far, Young has not made his intentions known.
Housing department could not say how the developer was able to get the permit when the Circuit Court invalidated the Planning Commission’s decision.
John Murphy, an attorney who represents the Clipper Mill residents, declined to comment on the record. He also represents Clipper Mill residents in a Circuit Court suit challenging the planning commission’s approval of Valstone’s proposal to convert Clipper Mill’s historic Tractor Building to apartments.
Some preservationists say Valstone’s application to tear down the two Woodberry houses is an example of a situation they always worry about when an area has been proposed for designation as a historic district:
Developers trying to get in under the wire with a demolition project before the designation takes effect.
Tom Liebel, chairman of CHAP, said he was not aware that the Woodberry demolition permits had been issued and said he would look into the matter.