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Baltimore historic commission rejects Fells Point apartment design

Brendan Chasen, of Chasen Construction & Development, testifies before Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation on Tuesday. The panel voted against the design of an apartment proposed by Chasen in Fells Point. (Adam Bednar/The Daily Record)

Brendan Chasen of Chasen Construction & Development testifies Tuesday before Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. The panel voted against the design of an apartment proposed by Chasen in Fells Point. (Adam Bednar/The Daily Record)

The developer behind a controversial proposal to build apartments in Fells Point will pursue alternative uses for the site after Baltimore’s historic commission disapproved of the project’s design.

Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted Tuesday to reject the design of a five-story building at 509 S. Washington Street. Members voting against the design sided with residents who argued the building as proposed was too tall, dense and out of character with the surrounding community.

“Back to the drawing board. We have other options for (the vacant lot),”  said Brendan Chasen of Chasen Construction & Development.

Chasen said after the hearing his firm will consider projects with a mix of commercial and residential. While still a fan of the city, he added, Baltimore’s design process makes it hard to put a project together because of uncertainty about whether a development will be approved, even if zoning allows what’s proposed.

“I love the city. I love everything about it, but I think we need to change the way we (approve) development,” he said, adding that altering the process for approving building is needed if the city is going to keep up pace with rapidly growing cities like Washington.

Zoning for the site, which Chasen Construction bought last year, permits the more-than-50-foot high building with 31 apartments the company planned. Commission staff also recommended approving the height and massing of the building.

The neighborhood’s historic designation, however, required the commission to consider if the building was in keeping with the existing community.

After listening to testimony for and against the plan, commissioners voted in favor of a motion disapproving the design. Eight members voted for the motion, two voted against, and Councilman John Bullock abstained.

Commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr. praised the developers “heroic effort” to comply with city requirements. But voted in favor of the motion disapproving despite a process he called “Kafkaesque.”

“I don’t see how as a commissioner I could say (the building) was compatible with the surrounding community,” Embry said.

Neighbors of the proposed building and members of several Fells Point community associations testified against the proposal.

Ben Cole, who lived near the property and organized community opposition, said he wants something on the empty gravel lot. But what Chasen proposed building, he argued, was too large for the community.

“I personally am pro-development of this (lot), but what we want is responsible development,” Cole told commissioners.

The commission had tabled discussion of the project in July. Residents also had asked to delay action on the project because neighbors had just found out about the proposal.

Developers subsequently reached out to the community and scheduled a project presentation. Chasen told the commissioners Tuesday that Cole was the only resident to attend.

Cole blamed the light attendance at that meeting on the developer’s consultant, Nate Pretl, of AB Associates, who Cole said reached out on July 27, a Friday, and scheduled the meeting the following Tuesday.

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