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Neighborhoodsby Mark Reutter9:40 amJun 27, 20230

Zoning change vote by City Council comes as a blow to a historic Black enclave

Only the developer and the Scott administration supported the zoning change for an upscale Sharp Leadenhall apartment project with no affordable housing

Above: “We want some affordable housing, and we want it now,” says Betty Bland-Thomas, president of the Historic Sharp Leadenhall Community Association. (Charles Cohen)

The citizens of Sharp Leadenhall spoke, and last night the City Council answered – approving a zoning change at the behest of developer Douglas Schmidt that was opposed by every resident who testified in earlier hearings or responded to an online poll.

The Council rezoned a brick warehouse at 810 Leadenhall Street, midway between the Inner Harbor and M&T Bank Stadium, upon whose footprint Schmidt and partners Richard Manekin, Todd Tilson and Neil Tucker want to erect a luxury apartment building.

The change from industrial mixed use to transit oriented development allows Schmidt to increase the height of the building from 60 to 100 feet, while downsizing individual units to less than 300 square feet of living space.

Looming behind the 47 seconds it took the Council to approve last night’s change were widespread community concerns about the fate of Sharp Leadenhall, the oldest Black neighborhood in Baltimore, that the lawmakers – eight of whom got campaign contributions from Schmidt and Manekin – effectively sidestepped.

“I oppose this bill with vigor and passion, and hope you will not vote for it,” Argentine Craig, vice president of the Baltimore League of Women Voters, said at a hearing earlier this month where the bill was advanced.

“This is an egregious misuse of zoning to accommodate the desires of a particular developer,” charged Barbara Samuels, retired housing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

“Six stories and 165 units are way too much for the small footprint of the proposed site,” said residents Mary and Kevin O’Keeffe.

“The city is perpetuating the inequitable and inaccessible rents of the White L,” added Sally Plunkett, using the term coined by academic Lawrence Brown to describe the mostly affluent white communities located between the city’s impoverished Black east and west sides.

Argentine Craig testifies

“With vigor and passion” Argentine Craig testified against the zoning change at the June 13 Council hearing. (CharmTV)

Zero Affordable Housing

What most bothers Betty Bland-Thomas, president of the Historic Sharp Leadenhall Community Association, is that all of the proposed apartments will be market rate, despite Schmidt winning at least 30 new units from the zoning change pushed by Councilman Eric Costello and the Scott administration.

“We want some affordable housing, and we want it now. Not some vague promise for the future,” she told The Brew.

The Sharp Leadenhall Master Plan, adopted by the city in 2004, calls for new affordable housing within the existing fabric of small historic rowhouses in order to retain the character of a community first established by free Blacks in the 1790s.

“Sharp Leadenhall is rapidly losing its identity as an historic Black community in the midst of the overwhelmingly white South Baltimore peninsula”  – Matt Hill.

Since then, completion of nearby high-rent apartment projects, inhabited almost entirely by white households, has reduced the area’s Black population from 68% to 45%, according to C. Matthew Hill, attorney for the Public Justice Center.

“Development without affordable units at 810 Leadenhall is inconsistent with the Master Plan and will further displacement of predominately Black community residents, many of whom cannot afford rising market rents,” he told the Council, adding:

“Sharp Leadenhall is rapidly losing its identity as an historic Black community in the midst of the overwhelmingly white South Baltimore peninsula.”

Proposed 168-unit apartment building at 810 Leadenhall Street incorporating part of the original warehouse facade. (Workshop Development)

The proposed apartment building at 810 Leadenhall Street that will incorporate – and rise above – the warehouse facade. (Workshop Development)

Stalled Inclusionary Bill

The broader context to this problem, say Bland-Thomas and Hill, is the failure of the City Council and the Scott administration to enact inclusionary housing legislation to replace the law that expired last year.

Bill 22-0195 was introduced in February 2022 by Councilwoman Odette Ramos, but has since languished in committee.

The slow-walking of the bill, Bland-Thomas says, is underscored by Council President Nick Mosby’s call in mid-April for a hearing on the bill that’s yet to be scheduled and the failure of Mayor Brandon Scott to deliver an equity report assessing the proposed law.

“When the rubber meets the road, it’s business as usual”  – Betty Bland-Thomas.

Had the Ramos bill been enacted, at least 10% of the units at 810 Leadenhall would already be designated as affordable to lower-income families.

“We are told that Black neighborhoods matter,” she noted in an oped in the Baltimore Sun. “But when the rubber meets the road, it’s business as usual: Baltimore City leaders give developers special zoning breaks and taxpayer handouts for new high-rent buildings without requiring any affordable units marketed to Black residents who already live here.”

I'm all for inclusionary housing, says Doug Schmidt, as long as the city pays for it. (CharmTV)

I’m all for inclusionary housing, says Doug Schmidt, as long as the city pays for it. (CharmTV)

“Economically Impossible”

Schmidt says he backs inclusionary housing as a government policy, but “it is economically impossible” for developers to shoulder the burden alone.

“It’s well known and accepted that projects cannot afford inclusionary units without additional support from the city,” he told the Council at the June 13 hearing.

While looking forward to a program that provides financial support for affordable housing, “we’re not holding up moving ahead, we can’t wait for legislation. But personally I’m pushing to have that happen as quickly as possible.”

Schmidt said he and his partners have already made substantial changes regarding parking, security and “pet impacts” in response to community concerns since they purchased the warehouse last August and approached  Costello, the South Baltimore councilman, for a change in zoning.

Costello in turn testified he had “a long conversation” with the developers, telling them he expected “extensive community outreach and meaningful conversations” before he would support the rezoning.

“I am pleased to report that I believe that work has happened,” Costello said at the June 13 hearing, just minutes before 14 people stood up and decried the project’s lack of community input and spoke of an online petition and a rally at Martini Lutheran Church in opposition to the project.

A flyer announcing the

A flyer announcing a “Stand with Historic Sharp Leadenhall” rally before the June 13 Council hearing. (Betty Bland-Thiomas)

Changing the Boundary

To justify spot rezoning, the Scott administration was required to prove that a mistake was made in the original zoning or that the character of a neighborhood had so changed that rezoning would promote the “public health, safety, morals or general welfare and not merely advantage the property owner.”

There was no mistake that the 2017 zoning designation was correct and that the demographics in the blocks surrounding the building hadn’t changed.

Instead, the Planning Department under Director Chris Ryer stretched out the boundaries of Sharp Leadenhall to include upscale Otterbein and the new developments along Cross and Ostend streets to justify a “change in character.”

The agency then cited the Hamburg Street Light Rail station as the reason to change the zoning from light industrial (which allows for some housing) to transit oriented development (which permits high-density housing), while at the same time giving Schmidt the maximum 1-to-1 ratio of parking spaces and apartment units.

Betty Bland Thomas listens to an Otterbein resident, flanked by activists Taryn Gross-Okekwe (in blue dress) and Sonia Eddy. (Charles Cohen)

Betty Bland Thomas listens to an Otterbein resident, flanked by  Taryn Gross-Ojekwe (in blue dress) and Sonia Eddy at the June 12 rally. (Charles Cohen)

Campaign Dollars

For Council members, Schmidt is a familiar face. His company, Workshop Development, has ushered in many developments along the harbor, including The Shops at Canton Crossing, Hyatt Place Hotel on Fleet Street, Brown’s Wharf in Fells Point and the Hohm Highlandtown Apartments.

He personally gave $11,000 to five Council members in recent years, while his partner, Manekin, contributed $4,000 more to seven lawmakers, a Brew review of campaign reports filed with the State Board of Elections found.

Schmidt’s biggest contributions went to Councilmen Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Zeke Cohen ($4,000 and $3,500, respectively), followed by $3,000 to Costello and $1,500 to Mosby.

Other Council members benefiting from Workshop Development’s largess include: Mark Conway ($1,250), Ramos ($750), John Bullock ($500) and Danielle McCray ($500).

All of the above lawmakers voted in favor of the zoning change. There were no “nay” votes and one abstention, from southwest Councilwoman Phylicia Porter.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s campaign committee, People for Brandon M. Scott, received $4,100 from the developers – an amount expected to climb as the 2024 election season heats up.

To reach a reporter: reuttermark@yahoo.com

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