Developer Larry Jennings wanted to talk about his “Make Woodberry Great Again” plan, but first he needed to get a few things off his chest.
Launching into a tirade at yesterday’s virtual meeting before the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), he denounced:
Community residents who challenge his development plans, preservationists who want to save historic buildings, a “vote-hungry” City Council member who doesn’t support him 100%, and city planners who don’t write reports that please him.
He also admitted that he – and not his ex-wife – was behind last year’s teardown of two 1840s stone houses in Woodberry, a former millworkers’ enclave that recently became a local historic district.
“This cute, fictionalized Woodberry village train left the station in, like, 2010,” Jennings declared at one point.
By the end of his diatribe, it was apparent the commission was not impressed. Overruling its staff, CHAP rejected the apartment building Jennings is proposing at 3535 Clipper Road, next to the spot where the stone houses were razed.
Nathan Dennies, chair of the Greater Hampden Heritage Alliance, was not alone in believing that the project might have been approved if Jennings hadn’t said what he did.
“I think that, more than any other testimony, is what swayed CHAP to reject the proposal,” Dennies said.
“Welcome to MAGA”
Over the summer, the senior managing director of ValStone Partners lashed out in another arena. Jennings sued residents and two homeowners’ boards for $25 million for testifying in public against his development plans at nearby Clipper Mill.
After a hearing last month, that case is now before a Circuit Court judge, who will decide if the lawsuit can proceed or if it is an illegal SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) aimed at stifling free speech.
Yesterday, Jennings seemed likely to win approval from CHAP until he took to Webex and decided to lecture the commission.
He told them how he’s been misunderstood as a developer and how he thinks the city should make amends – even though it was his family’s unexpected teardown of the stone houses that prompted the city to designate Woodberry a historic district in the first place.
“I like to call this the ‘Welcome to MAGA: Make Woodberry Great Again’ series,” he told the commission, as if describing the plot of a reality TV show.
“It’s a series that pits the Jennings family and their business interests against CHAP staff,” he continued, “backed by a vote-hungry councilman and residents mostly living in houses less than 15 years of age that have co-opted this area into a historic district.”
Jennings claimed the image of Woodberry as a quaint mill village has been misleading ever since a previous developer had built “modern, new” commercial and residential buildings starting in 2003. He said he simply came along to continue the trend.
City planners, he complained, have fallen too much under the influence of preservationists who want to focus on the smallest buildings in the area, without giving what he would consider sufficient consideration to larger buildings nearby.
Obsessing Over “Dinky” Houses
“You need to understand that the surrounding buildings of this neighborhood are not these little dinky two-and-a-half-story buildings,” he said. “I mean, Woodberry, Clipper Mill, is grown up. OK? That’s just the way it is.”
“This cute, fictionalized Woodberry village train left the station in, like, 2010″ – Larry Jennings.
At one point, he blasted Commissioner Ann Powell for suggesting that he shift apartments from the top floor of his proposed building to a level that would be partially below grade.
“Are you telling me that CHAP wants to become a zoning and density organization?” he demanded to know. “I thought you were concerned about massing.”
He then took umbrage at a suggestion that his family bulldozed the two stone houses at 3511 and 3523 Clipper Road without giving proper notice, even though a representative, Chris Mfume, had led residents to believe that the buildings would be incorporated into a new development.
“There are comments in the [staff] report that lead the reader to believe that we are some kind of rogue organization,” he fumed, saying, “We did everything we were supposed to do, and it’s really irritating that staff continues to propagate this myth that we did something wrong.”
“That’s what makes Woodberry great. The little houses, the historic feel, the mills, it all goes together” – Resident Tracey Brown.
One of his recurring complaints was with a city planner who didn’t write the staff report the way he would have liked.
“Could you enlighten us,” asked CHAP Chairman Tom Liebel about the report, which Jennings said was riven by “personalized editorials,” “sins of omission” and “arbitrary and capricious” recommendations.
The report intentionally missed height information about the dominant structures around Clipper Road, Jennings said. “The only comments about height for buildings is the two-and-a-half story duplexes. . . All we do is obsess about these four duplex buildings.”
Out of Scale
Community residents who spoke at the meeting said the staff was right to focus on the heights of the neighboring stone buildings rather than taller structures blocks away.
“Clipper Road is our Main Street,” said Woodberry resident Tracey Brown. “It is the very first street that was built in this entire mill valley region. Let that sink in. The entire mill valley region started with Clipper Road and the stone houses and the stone mills. That’s what people are attracted to. That’s what makes Woodberry great. The little houses, the historic feel, the mills, it all goes together.”
In a briefing before the hearing, CHAP Executive Director Eric Holcomb said the staff would be recommending that Jennings’ proposal be approved, on the condition that he take off at least one floor or part of a floor to make the building appear lower from the street.
All of which made the developer’s rant perplexing to one commissioner.
“I’m actually surprised that there is such a negative vibe here with Mr. Jennings, especially when the report actually recommends concept approval with some conditions,” Powell pointed out.
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